Amid the news that the U.S. had reached 1 million deaths from COVID-19, this week saw another grim milestone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the U.S. recorded more than 107,000 deaths from drug overdoses last year, a record high. This is a 15 percent increase from 2020, which held the previous record of around 93,000 deaths. While there has been plenty of talk about how many COVID deaths were preventable, it's also worth considering how many overdose deaths were the result of needlessly draconian government policies.
According to The New York Times, an increasing share of the number of total overdose deaths came from users of synthetic opioids and methamphetamine. The number of deaths from synthetic opioids increased from 58,000 to 71,000; most of these involved fentanyl, which is considerably stronger than morphine or heroin, and its analogs, which are even more potent. It is often mixed with heroin or stamped into counterfeit prescription drugs. Deaths associated with meth also rose from 25,000 to 33,000.
Each increase follows a longer-term trend: A decade ago, meth-related deaths numbered fewer than 2,000, but by 2017, the number had risen to 10,000. Similarly, deaths from fentanyl numbered around 1,600 in 2011 but increased more than tenfold by 2016.
Obviously, there are a number of reasons why people may abuse drugs. But the role of drug prohibition in exacerbating the crisis cannot be overstated.
During the same years that fentanyl use increased, the prescription rates of opioids like OxyContin plummeted. This was no accident: In 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions bragged about how successful the government's efforts had been at lowering the rates at which doctors prescribed opioids for pain. And yet, the overdose rate continued to climb, as both addicts and chronic pain patients alike were forced to seek out black-market alternatives.
A few years earlier, in an attempt to combat the spread of meth, Congress restricted the availability of the decongestant Sudafed, while the Drug Enforcement Administration cracked down on homegrown meth labs that used it as an ingredient. As a result, cheap, low-quality meth from Mexico with suspect ingredients filled the gap in supply.
Each case provides a perfect example of what Dr. Jeffrey Singer, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, refers to as "like playing a game of 'Whack-a-Mole,'" in which the government cracks down on a drug, only for its users to seek alternatives, typically in a more dangerous form. Prescription opioids, in particular, certainly do have the potential for abuse, though not to the extent often portrayed in popular media. But for those who genuinely need pain relief and who are suddenly unable to get it, the alternatives are much worse.