A few weeks ago, the number of drug related overdoses in 2015 were released and the findings were shocking. For the first time in this country’s history, heroin deaths have surpassed gun homicides, and overall drug overdoses have become the leading cause of unintentional death for Americans.
In 2015, a reported 13,150 people died from heroin overdoses, while 12,974 were killed in firearm related incidents. This number is an 11% increase from the previous year and as staggering as this is, heroin overdoses only represent a little more than a third of the 33,251 people that died in 2015 from overdoses in general. 20,101 of that number were from prescription pain medication and this is alarming to officials who have watched the number of deaths related to drug overdoses steadily climb over the past few years.
The reason that heroin deaths have surpassed gun homicides is in part because of the foreign made Fentanyl that has made its way onto American streets. This Fentanyl, which is mostly made in Chinese laboratories, is mixed with heroin by street level dealers in order to maximize profits and increase potency, but the effect has been that many users of the drug are overdosing due to the fact that Fentanyl is stronger than heroin.
In 2016, the issue with overdoses reached the point where one county in South Florida reported that they were responding to an overdose every 2 hours and this same sentiment has been echoed by many communities throughout the country. First responders throughout the nation have been inundated with calls for people in the throes of an opioid overdose and the usage of Narcan, the life saving drug that counteracts an opioid overdose, has skyrocketed this year. It has reached the point where there have been talks of putting Narcan in high schools across the country and many states have implemented measures that have increased the number of individuals who are legally allowed to administer the drug.
What is most tragic about all of this, besides the unnecessary deaths of thousands of people, is the fact that even though heroin deaths have surpassed gun homicides in this country, during this last election cycle there was little to no talk of substance abuse from the candidates, while gun violence was a main talking point. This is not to take away from the damage that is caused every year by gun violence, but when you have a full fledged social and public health epidemic on your hands, it would stand to reason that it would at least be addressed in a manner befitting the seriousness of the situation. It would seem to make sense that this topic would be at the forefront of political discussion, but it wasn’t.
In part, this is understandable because drug addiction is still a very contentious and misunderstood topic by a large portion of the population. It is a terrible, ugly thing to bare witness to and it’s so complex that a 5-minute stump speech could never do justice to it. You cannot really get a good sound bite answer out of talking about addiction and when in the past we have tried, we wound up with woefully misguided policies that resulted in the criminalization of addiction and an explosion of the prison population. However, hopefully with the release of these numbers and the headlines that heroin deaths have surpassed gun homicides, the country will stand and take notice of what is going on and attempt to enact real change when it comes to addiction. We will hopefully see the complexity of the issue at hand and not shirk responsibility, but step up to the plate and look for solutions to the problem.
2016 has seen some improvement in this area and there have been a number of pieces of legislation introduced that seek to curb these rising numbers and help the millions of Americans affected by drug addiction find help.
Over the summer, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act was signed into law by a bipartisan congress and the President. It was the first step in this administration’s attempt to deal with the opioid epidemic in this country and it sought to change the legal and public view of addiction and create more rehabilitation opportunities for addicts. The bill allows for medication assisted treatment for prisoners, which has never been done before in this country and it allocated funding for education and prevention programs. While it is far from perfect in that it does not offer any funding for abstinence only programs, it is a step in the right direction and at the very least, it shows the opioid addiction problem is being taken somewhat seriously in this country.
Besides this, we have seen sustained media coverage on the problem, which is usually a precursor to change. Many times the media will pick up a story and go after it for a few weeks but will lose interest in the swirl of international crises that seem to come about every week, but this has not been the case with addiction this year. The media has persistently reported on what is going on and what measures are being taken in order to combat the problem and because of this, the public is constantly made aware of where we stand with the opioid problem.
So while we have a long way to go in order to truly effect a lasting change in regards to addiction in this country, 2016 has in some ways been a great starting point. Even though experts believe that the death rate for this year will be higher than 2015’s, we will hopefully be able to continue the national discourse on addiction, and continue to try our best to find solutions to the problem as the new year begins and a new administration takes office in January.