Overdose Deaths Continue Rising, With Fentanyl and Meth Key Culprits


The White House in recent weeks announced President Biden’s first national drug control strategy, and a plan to combat meth use, unveiled last week by his drug czar, Dr. Rahul Gupta, the first medical doctor to oversee the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Overdose deaths involving meth almost tripled between 2015 and 2019 in people 18 to 64, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Mr. Biden is the first president to embrace harm reduction, an approach that has been criticized by some as enabling drug users, but praised by addiction experts as a way to keep drug users alive while providing access to treatment and support.

Instead of pushing abstinence, the approach aims to lower the risk of dying or acquiring infectious diseases by offering sterile equipment — through needle exchanges, for example — or tools to check drugs for the presence of fentanyl. Strips that can detect fentanyl have become increasingly valuable resources for local health officials, and some states have moved recently to decriminalize them, even as others resist.

The causes of the continued increase in overdoses are complex and hard to untangle, experts said. But state health officials and some addiction experts said the spike in overdoses, which began before the pandemic, could not be blamed solely on the disruptions that came with it, or on a major increase in the number of Americans using drugs.

Social isolation and economic dislocation, which have been widespread during the pandemic, do tend to cause relapses in drug use, and could have contributed to rising overdoses. Shutdowns early in 2020 also caused some addiction treatment providers to temporarily close their doors. But the pandemic alone does not explain the recent trend.

Policy changes made during the pandemic may have helped prevent more deaths. Regina LaBelle, an addiction policy expert at Georgetown University, said that early research has found that loosening rules to permit take-home methadone treatment had been beneficial, along with an increase in treatment via telemedicine.

“The difference in what we’re seeing now is not how many people are using,” said Dr. Anne Zink, the chief health official in Alaska, which saw the largest overdose death percentage increase of any state in the nation, according to the data released on Wednesday.



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