More than 107,600 Americans died from drug overdoses last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed on Wednesday. The record-setting figure, driven by fentanyl and other synthetic opioid abuse, represented a 15% increase over the previous year’s 93,655 overdose deaths.
The massive number is the highest recorded since the CDC began keeping track of overdoses, representing a whopping one overdose every five minutes across the US. However, the rate of increase has slowed by half since the previous year. Overdose deaths surged 30% between 2019 and 2020. The largest increase was seen in Alaska, where drug-related deaths soared 75.3% over the previous year.
Synthetic opioid fentanyl, 50 times as potent as heroin, remained the primary culprit in the vast majority of overdoses, present in nearly two-thirds (71,238) of the casualties – a 23% uptick from the previous year. Methamphetamine was a distant second, appearing in 32,856 cases, though at 34%, the rate of increase was steeper than that seen for fentanyl; 24,538 of those who died had taken cocaine, while just 13,503 had taken prescription pain medications, the drugs primarily responsible for kicking off the US opioid epidemic over two decades ago.
Last year was hardly the first to set a record regarding overdoses in the US, which have been steadily climbing for years aside from a brief dip in 2018. The figures have only grown as the easier-to-smuggle and -synthesize fentanyl has overtaken heroin in drug markets across America.
Heroin itself gradually replaced prescription opioids as the latter became more difficult to obtain following a nationwide crackdown on ‘pill mills’. These were doctors willing to write prescriptions for a beefed-up fee, scripts filled at well-stocked pharmacies that didn’t ask too many questions about why they were in some cases dispensing enough pills to keep every resident of their communities medicated year-round.
The Covid-19 pandemic only exacerbated the issues facing both sellers and buyers of dangerous drugs, making international travel more difficult – and the more compact, easy-to-ship synthetic opioids a more appealing commodity. At the same time, it has increased the psychological stressors that drive people to use drugs in the first place and made treatment more difficult to access.
Last year, federal agents seized more than twice as much fentanyl at the US southern border as they had during 2020, and almost four times as much as in 2019.