Fentanyl and other potent opioids are mainly to blame for increase in overdose fatalities.
Drug overdoses involving cocaine and methamphetamine have been on a distressing rise in the United States over the past decade. However, a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights that it is the presence of opioids that is primarily responsible for driving these fatalities.
The CDC’s report, published late last month, analyzed drug overdose deaths in the United States between 2011 and 2021. The findings revealed a troubling increase in polysubstance overdoses involving cocaine and opioids, rising from 0.8 deaths per 100,000 in 2011 to 5.9 per 100,000 deaths in 2021, an alarming seven-fold surge. A similar pattern emerged for psychostimulants, such as methamphetamines and amphetamines, which showed a 22-fold increase in overdose deaths involving opioids during the same period.
Merianne Rose Spencer, a researcher at the National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and lead author of the report, stressed the significance of these findings, stating, “This report highlights that rates continue to rise for drug overdose deaths involving cocaine as well as for drug overdose deaths involving psychostimulants. Notably, the majority of drug overdose deaths involving these drugs involved an opioid.”
While the report acknowledged a rise in drug overdose deaths related to cocaine and psychostimulants without opioid involvement, the increases for these drugs alone were comparatively modest when compared to those involving opioids. Overdose deaths from cocaine alone doubled from 2011 to 2021, reaching 1.5 per 100,000 deaths. Similarly, deaths from psychostimulants without opioid co-involvement increased six-fold, reaching 3.3 per 100,000 deaths in 2021. Nevertheless, it is the combination of these substances with opioids that has triggered a sharp increase in overall overdose deaths.
Geographically, the northeast region of the United States appears to be the most affected, with nearly 80% of all cocaine-related overdose deaths involving opioids. In the case of psychostimulants, the Northeast again exhibited the highest level of opioid co-involvement, found in 80.6% of overdose deaths.
The surge in overdose deaths is primarily attributed to opioids, particularly high-potency synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Out of the approximately 107,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2021, opioids were involved in 80,411 of them. This trend aligns with the CDC’s latest findings, which emphasize the role of opioids in driving overall increases in drug overdose deaths.
Dr. Rais Vohra, medical director at California Poison Control and a professor of emergency medicine and clinical pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco, highlighted the concerning crossover between various drugs, stating, “There may be this impression in the lay population and even in the general medical community that all of these drugs are being used in silos, when in fact the reality of street drug use is that no one really knows what’s in their supply.”
One significant factor contributing to the presence of opioids in other drug supplies is the infiltration of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Fentanyl, known for its high potency, is often mixed with other drugs to enhance their effects, resulting in potentially fatal outcomes for unsuspecting users. Dr. Vohra urges the public to become familiar with naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug, to save lives in emergency situations.
As Dr. Rais Vohra, medical director at California Poison Control, expressed, “Fentanyl has certainly infiltrated the drug supply, and this study really points to the fact that it’s not just people who think they are doing opioids. It’s really everyone.”