The U.S. drug epidemic has been detrimental to those who are addicted and their loved ones. Between 1999 and 2018, synthetic opioid (e.g. fentanyl) and addictive psychostimulant (e.g. methamphetamine) overdose deaths increased dramatically. Epidemiologists and statisticians from the National Center for Health Statistics analyzed overdose death data to better understand the future of such trends. In their January 2020 study, they found that overall drug overdoses in the U.S. decreased between 2017 and 2018. While overdose deaths caused by synthetic opioids and psychostimulants have increased in that span of time, overdose deaths involving heroin and natural opioids have decreased.
“We know that drug use comes in cycles,” says Jane Maxwell, a drug trend expert at the University of Texas at Austin.
It’s too early to determine if the findings indicate stable overdose trends or abnormalities heading into 2020 and beyond. However, the data help illustrate the reasons behind recent trends. According to Aimee Cunningham of ScienceNews, cocaine overdoses likely rose after a U.S.-Colombian peace treaty signed in 2016 that spurred coca plant production. This increased supply and decreased the cost of cocaine transported to the U.S. Further, synthetic opioid reformulations have increased their euphoric effect, likely contributing to the spike in overdose deaths from 2017 to 2018.
The common link between all the drug types discussed here is their ability to temporarily relieve mental and physical pain. It begs the question: why do so many Americans feel the need to self-medicate? Some say it is because of “diseases of despair.”
“What the doctors are saying is that these are ‘diseases of despair”—signs someone is trying to escape from a reality too cruel or exhausting,” presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders tells Joe Rogan in a podcast while discussing drug use in U.S.
Not all addictions result from such despair. In some cases, it can happen after an opioid prescription following a medical procedure. But one thing is certain: Americans should be feeling less pain.
Hedegaard H, Miniño AM, Warner M. 2020. Drug overdose deaths in the United States, 1999–2018. NCHS Data Brief, no 356. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.