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.
It takes time to collect data from each U.S. state, so the best data we have when it comes to overdose death rates usually have to do with the past few years. Currently, the most up-to-date records of U.S. overdose deaths come from 2017. Still, experts can make predictions about more recent overdose rates based on the information that continues to pour in.
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.
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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.
Illicit heroin is trafficked into the U.S. by land over the border and by ship at seaports. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment, Mexican transnational criminal organizations control the supply, trafficking, and distribution of heroin in the country. They also work with U.S.-based gangs and criminal organizations to set up distribution routes all over the country.
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, it’s 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.
CDC. (2019, June 27). Drug Overdose Deaths. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/statedeaths.html
CDC. (2019, May 31). Fentanyl. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/opioids/fentanyl.html
Gladden, R. M. (2019, August 29). Changes in Opioid-Involved Overdose Deaths by Opioid Type and Presence of Benzodiazepines, Cocaine, and Methamphetamine – 25 States, July–December 2017 to January–June 2018. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/68/wr/mm6834a2.htm?s_cid=mm6834a2_w
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, January). Prescription opioid use is a risk factor for heroin use. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/relationship-between-prescription-drug-heroin-abuse/prescription-opioid-use-risk-factor-heroin-use
National Drug Threat Assessment. (2018, October). 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA). Retrieved from https://www.dea.gov/documents/2018/10/02/2018-national-drug-threat-assessment-ndta