Whereas annual drug overdose deaths in the United States had hovered around 70,000 — an intolerably high level — from 2017 through 2019, evidence suggests that they accelerated last year. Provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that there were 90,237 drug-overdose deaths in the 12 months ending in September 2020, a leading indicator that implies a substantial increase over 2019’s total of 70,630, when final figures for all of 2020 are in. Seventy percent of drug overdose deaths are opioid-related, according to the most recent CDC figures.
Governments — federal, state and local — must do everything possible to prevent further backsliding. In fairness, the nature of the problem constantly mutates even as officials try to cope with it. Prescription drugs such as oxycodone were responsible for the first wave of deaths this century; then came a follow-on epidemic of heroin in the 21st century’s second decade. Now data show that the death toll from those substances has stopped increasing, but that this is offset by a spike in deaths from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Fentanyl probably accounted for the surge last year, along with more modest upticks in methamphetamine- and cocaine-related deaths.
President Biden recently decided to support extension through this year of an emergency law, expiring May 6, that makes it easier for law enforcement to target traffickers of fentanyl “analogues,” rather than seek special drug-by-drug authority to take on each of these chemically similar substances. Given the role that international smuggling from China and Mexico plays on the supply side of this drug, Mr. Biden made, on balance, the right call, despite critics’ legitimate concerns about reviving a repressive “war on drugs” approach.
A wide spectrum of opinions — including Mr. Biden’s — recognizes, though, that ending the epidemic means reducing demand and, over time, calls for expanding access to treatment and to mental health care more generally. Mr. Biden included $1.5 billion for treatment of substance use disorders in his American Rescue Plan and advocated, in his fiscal 2022 budget proposal, $10.7 billion for research, prevention, treatment and recovery support services, $3.9 billion over the 2021 level.
This is a down payment on the $125 billion, 10-year commitment he proposed in the 2020 campaign. The next urgent task, however, is for Mr. Biden to fill out the executive branch team to carry out his strategy. So far, he has named former New Jersey attorney general Anne Milgram to be the new head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, but two other key bodies — the Food and Drug Administration and the Office of National Drug Control Policy — are still operating with an able acting commissioner and an acting director, respectively. Mr. Biden is on track toward the right policy, but the right confirmed personnel will ensure its full impact.