Overdose deaths have been soaring in the U.S. for twenty years, having taken over a million American lives since 2000. Now, the death toll has taken a sharp uptick. In 2021, drug overdoses killed over 107,000 people — a tragic record according to preliminary Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.
In a statement to Buzzfeed News, US drug czar and head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Rahul Gupta said, “It is unacceptable that we are losing a life to overdose every five minutes around the clock.”
Early reports on what drove the increase found that the isolation of pandemic lockdowns was likely a factor, as overdosing individuals were not around people who could help them. Public health officials also said an increase in the availability of fentanyl on the illegal market was likely to blame.
Medical anthropologist Dan Ciccarone of the University of California, San Francisco told Buzzfeed News that the pandemic “just poured fuel on the fire of the overdose epidemic.”
“We are in an overdose epidemic that has been getting worse for 22 years, and is so bad that it has cut US life expectancy, even before the pandemic, which is incredible,” he continued. “We’ve never seen anything like this before in history.”
Fentanyl has been spreading west from the East Coast, often in the form of counterfeit pain pills that are many multiples more potent than heroin. This illegal form of fentanyl killed 71,000 people in 2021, two-thirds of all overdose deaths. The drug may also be gaining traction among more casual drug users who wouldn’t touch heroin and tend to associate pills with milder, less risky forms of drug use.