Report: Annual Drug Overdose Deaths Reach All-Time High

Powerful synthetic drugs like fentanyl have combined with fallout from the pandemic to drive a steep rise in deaths.

Signs are displayed at a tent during a health event on June 26, 2021, in Charleston, W.Va.John Raby/AP

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A record 107,600 people died of drug overdoses in 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported today, another tragic indication that powerful synthetic drugs and the Covid-19 pandemic helped fuel a rapid increase in deaths. The estimated total is likely to change as the CDC continues to review death records, but nevertheless, the startling increase constitutes evidence that the opioid crisis has only continued to grow in size and scale. 

Since the 1970s, annual drug overdose deaths have trended upward every year except for 2018, when totals briefly dipped before reaching all-time highs during the pandemic. 2021 represented a 15 percent increase over 2020, which had in turn surpassed 2019’s total by 30 percent. The state with the highest increase in overdoses was Alaska, where deaths rose by a staggering 75.3 percent

Seventy-one thousand of the overdose deaths recorded last year involved fentanyl, an extremely powerful synthetic opioid. Fentanyl is often used to lace other drugs, like cocaine, which can have fatal consequences for users unaware of what they’re actually consuming. Thirty-three thousand deaths involved the stimulant methamphetamine, representing an 8,000 death increase from 2020. Many overdoses, however, involved the use of multiple drugs. 

The Biden administration recently released a national strategy that embraces “harm reduction” tactics to decrease the number of overdoses. Instead of punishing drug users, harm reduction aims to connect them to social services and treatment. It also stresses programs that help expand access to clean syringes and the drug naloxone, also known as narcan, which can reverse overdoses. 

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