Opioid overdose deaths have risen to the point where it’s being called one of the worst drug epidemics in the history of the United States. Prescription opioids, illicit heroin, and powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl have created a spike in overdose deaths that continues to rise year after year. However, what is the scope of the opioid epidemic, and what is its cause?

Learn more about the most current statistics on opioid overdose deaths.

What are the Current Opioid Overdose Death Rates?

Opioids are a significant problem in the United States. For the past several years, rising rates of opioid overdose and addiction have led to a crisis of public health in the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 70,630 drug overdose deaths in 2019, many of which involved opioids. In fact, opioids were involved in more than 70% of 2019 overdose deaths, accounting for 49,860 cases. Throughout the opioid crisis, the northwestern and Great Lakes regions of the U.S. are among the hardest hit. However, most of the country has seen a significant impact on public health caused by opioids. 

In 2020, the already high rates of overdose deaths reached a record high, exceeding 93,000. This far exceeds the previous high of 72,000 deaths. It’s thought that opioids played a significant role in that number. The COVID-19 pandemic is also thought to have influenced the surge in overdose deaths. Factors like stress, isolation, and limited access to healthcare and treatment services may have contributed to higher overdose deaths in 2020. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that opioids were involved in more than 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017. An August 2019 CDC report stated that provisional data suggested there was a slight decline in opioid-involved overdose deaths in 2018.

Factors in the Opioid Crisis

Drug availability is a major factor in any addiction and overdose crisis. When it comes to the opioid crisis, availability comes from two sources: prescription opioids and illicit drugs.

Opioid prescribing rates for opioids have risen in the past several years, and many of those pills make their way into the wrong hands. Doctors often prescribe more than a patient might need, and the excess is put away on shelves where other people can access them, or the pills are given away to family and friends.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that the majority of people who seek help for heroin addiction said they started by first using prescription opioids. When a person develops a dependence on prescription opioids, it can turn into an addiction that’s difficult to maintain. They may turn to cheaper and more available options like illicit heroin. Heroin is the second most easily attainable illicit drug in the United States after marijuana.

Fentanyl is a prescription drug that is prescribed to treat pain symptoms in various settings. However, most fentanyl that’s used for recreational purposes comes from illicit sources. Illicit fentanyl is made in clandestine laboratories and trafficked into the U.S., where it can be bought in powder or pill form. Because fentanyl is so potent, it’s easier to make and ship profitable amounts in smaller quantities that are harder for law enforcement to detect. 

However, fentanyl is not always sought out by drug users like heroin is. Still, fentanyl is put into counterfeit pills and mixed into other drugs like heroin and cocaine. In many cases, fentanyl is used to increase the potency of heroin and increase its perceived value. Fentanyl is more powerful than heroin and capable of causing a deadly overdose in the average person in doses as small as 2 mg or 3 mg (milligrams), which is around the same weight as a snowflake. Fentanyl that’s mixed into heroin may be a higher dose than even tolerant opioid users can handle, leading to a deadly overdose. According to the DEA, fentanyl is “primarily responsible for fueling the ongoing opioid crisis.”

But Where Does Illicit Heroin Come From?

Illicit opioids are primarily shipped into the United States from other countries. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment, Mexican transnational criminal organizations represent the greatest drug-trafficking threat to the United States. They also work with U.S.-based gangs and criminal organizations to set up distribution routes all over the country.

An opioid prescription spilling onto a black surface reflecting the American flag

Heroin isn’t the only opioid being trafficked to the United States. Synthetic opioids like fentanyl are also being shipped to the country. Fentanyl is cheap and easy to make.

Plus, its high potency makes it easy to transport. The drug is 50 times the strength of heroin, so much smaller packages can be transported to make the same amount of money that a large amount of heroin could make.

Fentanyl may also be used to increase the potency of heroin, and users may take it without knowing that it’s in their heroin supply. The results are often a deadly overdose.

The combination of prescription opioid abuse and the availability of illicit opioids is a double-edged sword that has fueled the surge in opioid overdose deaths in the past few years.

Risk Factors for Opioid Addiction

Opioids use problems can affect anyone, and people from every region of the country and demographic have been affected. However, several risk factors may increase a person’s likelihood of experiencing an opioid use disorder (OUD). Adolescents and younger adults may be more vulnerable to risk factors, especially if they live in an area with high drug availability. 

Some risk factors include: 

  • Poverty and socioeconomic status
  • Unemployment 
  • A parent or grandparent with a substance use problem
  • Your personal substance use history
  • Neighborhood drug availability
  • Early exposure to drugs
  • Mental health disorders

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has also identified protective factors from young people. Protective factors include effective self-control techniques, parental monitoring, academic competence among peers, anti-drug use policies at school, and a strong sense of community attachment. 

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