LOS ANGELES — More Americans died of drug overdoses in 2021 than in any previous year.
It’s a grim milestone as new numbers show one state, which has enacted a program to treat drug addiction, may have made things even worse.
America is in a crisis — deaths from cocaine, opioids and other prescription medicines are all up.
For the first time ever, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 100,000 Americans overdosed on drugs in 2021, a nearly 30% swing from 2020.
“This is no longer one of those things that happened to that person. It’s a thing that’s happening to everyone,” said Matt Sutton, director of public relations for The Drug Policy Alliance.
Sutton points to two triggers for our record drug abuse in America. One is the pandemic, which forced people into isolation and depression so that drug experimentation and addiction followed. The second is the rapid takeover of fentanyl, a highly addictive synthetic opioid.
The Northeast has the highest number of overdose deaths, but northwestern states, such as Washington and Oregon, are experiencing the sharpest swing of fentanyl-related overdoses.
“We see more people in need and people with fewer resources,” said Peter Kerns, with Serenity Lane Alcohol and Drug Treatment Services:
In November 2020, Oregon passed Measure 110, becoming the first state in the nation to decriminalize personal possession of illegal drugs such as Ecstasy, cocaine and heroin.
The goal was to redirect users to treatment resources instead of jail cells, but the pandemic slowed the rollout of funding. The state announced $270 million in grants to distribute, but only about $64 million has been allocated.
During that slowdown, fentanyl-related deaths sped up in Portland.
“The Oregon Health Authority really underestimated what it was going to take to distribute this amount of funds to this many organizations,” Sutton said. “Every day that we wait to provide those services, more and more people are dying.”
Oregon is currently the only state that has decriminalized drugs, but it’s been proposed in other states, including Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont.
However, not everyone is in favor of the first-of-its-kind law. Last month, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler pleaded for funding and demanded accountability.
This comes as other treatment providers collaborate in search of solutions, knowing that drug abuse is, at some point, an inevitability for many.
“Good public policy has some accountability, and it also has total access to treatment for people who are addicted. People are going to become addicted, whether drugs are illegal or not. That is going to happen,” Kerns said.
Meanwhile, other outside-the-box experiments continue across America.
California is closing in on passing a law that creates sites where people can get clean needles and legally use drugs under the supervision of health professionals.
Proponents say this will allow them their fix and could save them from overdosing all alone. But opponents say sites like these are just magnets attracting addicts to surrounding neighborhoods in the belief that they now have a safe space to use.
This experiment has been rolled out in Europe, Canada and New York City.
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