Rising overdose deaths demand new ways to reduce them
When 50,000 people died of overdoses in the United States from April 2015 to April 2016, it marked an all-time high, terrifying communities and spurring new prevention and treatment programs. The federal government, along with New York and most states, increased funding and passed legislation to combat the scourge.
In 2018 and 2019, total overdose deaths declined, and it seemed a corner had been turned.
But by April 2021, after 12 months of COVID, that 2016 fatality record had doubled again, to 100,000 overdose deaths in a year, including nearly 800 Long Islanders.
The death toll is more than the 88,000 who die each year from diabetes, and while addiction also is a disease, drug overdose deaths are different.
Drug overdose deaths are accidents — poisonings, essentially — and are mostly preventable. Other countries have made huge strides in stopping them with methods like supervised injection sites and government-tested heroin, practices that remain mostly anathema in this country.
More than two-thirds of accidental overdose deaths in the United States in 2021 were caused by fentanyl, a cheap, synthetic opioid 100 times more powerful than heroin that dealers add to heroin and other street drugs to provide a powerfully potent pop.
Users can’t tell what they’re buying, and that’s often deadly.
These particular victims are not dying from the long-term effects of addiction. Such fatalities are classed separately. And they’re not committing suicide, because drug suicides are classed separately, too.
Most overdoses occur when users purchase a counterfeit drug that acts as a deadly poison. Often, no one is present to administer the cheap and readily available antidote that would save them.
Such accidental deaths are significantly fewer with legal, broadly available intoxicants, like alcohol, and with regulated, prescribed opioids, like oxycodone and morphine. Accidental overdoses of prescription opioids are normally the result of taking too much in search of a bigger high, not being sold a mysterious and deadly substance or dosage.
And such deaths don’t happen nearly as much to users in nations where a regulated supply and places to use it are provided to heroin addicts.
Up until a decade ago, I was advocating for the legalization of all drugs, on the basis of personal liberty. I can’t support that any more, at least when it comes to heroin. It’s just too dangerous.
Legalizing heroin could, for some risk-takers, adventure seekers, and regular users of other drugs, normalize dabbling in the incomparably addictive drug experience heroin offers. Opioids are so pleasant, it can seem astonishing that anyone has tried them and not become addicted.
There are nations — like Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Canada — that have introduced programs to provide full-blown addicts with clean heroin that they must ingest under supervision.
Switzerland has been the leader in this attempt since 1994, and since that time drug overdose deaths there have dropped by 64%. HIV infections fell by 84%, home thefts declined 98%, and the number of new heroin users has dropped, too.
We would be wise in the United States to test large pilot programs allowing supervised injection locations to dispense government-monitored heroin to those already addicted. Those who instinctively and understandably oppose this as dangerous, or coddling to addicts, need to try to let go of misperceptions about “shooting galleries” and “giving junkies drugs” and look at the facts.
Because the way we do it now is killing 100,000 Americans a year.
Columnist Lane Filler’s opinions are his own.