The first batch of data from the CDC won't be available for months, but many expect that the US likely saw a new record in overdose deaths during 2021, after setting a record in 2020 and 2019, with most of the deaths attributed to synthetic opioids like fentanyl that have infected the drug supply throughout the US.
Even drugs like cocaine have been laced with deadly fentanyl, a practice that leads to far more accidental deaths. Almost 2/3rds of the 100K overdose deaths from 2020 involved synthetic opioids, which can be 50x more potent than morphine, if not more.
The surging deaths have alarmed policy makers, who had hoped that cracking down on Big Pharma would help reverse the worst affects of the pandemic. But it seems like it's already too late; a large market of users who started with Vicoden and oxycodone are still alive, fueling the demand for fentanyl-laced street dope. Meanwhile, the surge in demand for fentanyl has caused street heroin to largely disappear from the US east of the Mississippi.
The fear is that the pandemic caused many addicts in recovery to relapse, raising the risk of overdosing on far more powerful street drugs. Health experts believe many of those who died probably didn't even know they were consuming fentanyl.
Finally, some state officials in Pennsylvania and other hard-hit starts are finally giving up on treating this like a criminal justice issue, and are starting to treat it like a public health issue. Instead of criminalizing it, they're accepting that it happens, and hoping to minimize it.
With Democrats in power, the five-decade-old "war on drugs" might be totally transformed. And one of the most contentious issues is the adoption of supervised injection sites like they have in Kensington.
Conservatives and community activists have long opposed these facilities because of the type of people they attract.
But NYC opened its first supervised injection sites in April. And Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood, long a haven for drug dealers and drug users, jokingly called the "Wal-Mart of Heroin" because of the open air drug markets that dominate the neighborhood and have for decades.
The Biden administration faces a critical crossroads: the Dems can either embrace the progressive policies and risk taking their political lumps, or they can resist their spread and do nothing.
Dr Rahul Gupta, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, says he wants to evaluate the science and data behind supervised injection sites, suggesting a change in policy is being considered. "We want to learn and we want to make sure that every possible door we can open up to help people and connect them to treatment is available to us," he told CNN in December. "If you’re looking to save lives and you’ve reached a historic unprecedented level of deaths, then you cannot avoid looking at any and every option in order to save those lives," he added.
Overdose deaths hit a record 1,214 in Philadelphia in 2020, a 6% increase on 2019. Fentanyl was involved in 81% of them. The problem with fentanyl is that it's so physically addicting, it's a moneymaker for the cartels, who have begun lacing other drugs with it, including cocaine, "Molly" and fake pills pressed to look like Xanax.
Speaking to staff at Prevention Point, the only safe injection site in Kensington, the executive director told the FT that nobody has ever died at a safe injection site. But the site's staff have played a role in saving the lives of many addicts who overdose nearby.
Jeanmarie Perrone, professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, said "it’s like drowning"..."Fentanyl depresses the respiratory effort and people stop breathing. They go a few minutes without oxygen, the heart rate slows and they have a cardiac arrest."
One parent in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, described to the reporter how two of his children have spent their adult lives chasing drugs until one overdosed. The other is still alive, but continues to struggle.
"If I mapped out his life, from the time he was 15 till the day he died, all he was doing was going in and out of rehab...and Molly was just kind of following his same path,” says Randy, a 70-year-old Baton Rouge construction worker, who asked not to use his real name. "I think a lot of places are money hungry, they get them in and out. You felt like they were supposed to be helping them but kicking them out ain’t helping them."
One policy change that could make users more safe would be to allow drug testing strips and narcan. Believe it or not, these items are still banned by dozens of states because they are considered drug paraphernalia.
President Biden has so far remained silent on whether he supports more harm control measures. Many are curious, since he authored some tough-on-crime legislation during his stretch in the Senate.
Perhaps the fact that two of his children turned out to have drug issues has changed his mind?