A record number of Americans died from drug overdoses last year, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Data from the CDC’s National Vital Statistics System for the year 2021 predicted that 107,622 Americans have died from drug overdoses. The data is not final, and could be under-reported because the data is not complete, but it would mark the largest number of Americans who have died from drug overdoses on record in a single year, and an increase of about 15% from 2020, when 93,655 people died from overdoses. Overdose deaths have also increased by about 50% since 2019 when around 72,000 people died of drug overdoses.
California led the nation in total overdose deaths, with 11,704 predicted deaths for the year 2021. Florida came in second, with 8,171 predicted deaths. Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas all suffered more than 5,000 predicted deaths. North Carolina had over 4,000. Five states suffered more than 3,000 overdose deaths, 12 states had more than 2,000 deaths, and nine states had more than 1,000 deaths last year.
California also led the nation in year-over-year increases, with about 2,100 more deaths in 2021 than in 2020. In terms of largest year-over-year percentage change, Alaska led the nation with a 75% increase over 2020. Nearly every state saw an increase in overdose deaths, except Wyoming, which saw no change, and Hawaii, which saw a net decrease of 1.8%.
One drug policy experts cited the COVID-19 pandemic as a major reason behind the spike in overdose deaths.
“The pandemic really upended so many people’s lives, especially people already living at the margins,” Maritza Perez, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Politico Wednesday. “People lost their jobs, they were isolated. These are all factors that increase problematic drug use.”
Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), called the CDC’s numbers a “devastating milestone” and “truly staggering.”
Deaths involving synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, were responsible for a large share of the deaths, The New York Times reported. The number of deaths involving synthetic opioids rose from 58,000 to 71,000, while deaths associated with stimulants like methamphetamine rose from 25,000 to 33,000.
The New York Times notes that fentanyl, which comes as a white powder, is becoming more prevalent because it can be mixed with other drugs, including other opioids like heroin, and pressed into counterfeit pills for other drugs.
A study of illicit pills seized by law enforcement agencies, conducted by the NIDA, found that the number of illicit pills containing fentanyl saw a nearly fifty-fold increase between 2018 and 2021. The study found that about 290,000 pills were seized in 2018. That number increased to over 9,500,000 pills in 2021.
“The net effect is that we have many more people, including those who use drugs occasionally and even adolescents, exposed to these potent substances that can cause someone to overdose even with a relatively small exposure,” Volkow told the Associated Press.
“Compounding the tragedy, we have underused treatments that could help many people,” Volkow added, according to Politico. “We must meet people where they are to prevent overdoses, reduce harm, and connect people to proven treatments to reduce drug use.”