Deaths from drug overdoses are hitting astronomical levels. An estimated 100,000 Americans, or roughly 272 a day, died from drug overdoses from March 2020 to April 2021, the CDC said Wednesday, which is a record high. In fact, it's roughly one-third more deaths from drug overdoses than the year before.
Drug overdose deaths have been steadily climbing the last 20 years, but those increases pale in comparison to the acceleration the last couple of years when the nation has been gripped in the throes of a pandemic that led to isolation from closures, as well as increased fear, anxiety, and other mental health issues that can foster drug abuse.
On top of that, the illicit drug supply has been tainted with the highly lethal synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is often secretly added to street drugs, including pills, thereby catching the unsuspecting user off-guard.
Virginia, like much of the nation, saw dramatic increases in drug overdose deaths in which the victims' bodies contained fentanyl, according to forensic epidemiologist Rosie Hobron, who works at the state medical examiner's office.
"It's really just in everything in the drug market," she told CBN News. "It's kind of a scary time."
Hobron says nearly three out of four overdose deaths involved fentanyl and almost all of the deaths were accidental. The trend shows no signs of slowing down.
"This whole drug overdose epidemic has changed," she said. "But it's increasing significantly in the last year and I'm not sure we're going to see anything slow down in the near future."
A Cheap, Potent Filler
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 100 times more powerful than morphine. Alexandria, Virginia's opioid response coordinator Emily Bentley told CBN News fentanyl is so potent that the equivalent of a couple of grains of sand can kill.
"It is cheaper than many other substances," she said. "So it can be added to stretch out, say if somebody has a certain amount of cocaine, for instance, if they add fentanyl they can increase the volume at a very low cost."
Fentanyl is also added to pills like Xanax, Oxycodone, and MDMA, the party drug often referred to as "Ecstasy" or "Molly."
Bentley says it's almost impossible to spot fake pills. That's because drug dealers crush the real pills, add fentanyl, then re-press them using a sophisticated pill press that makes the final product look identical to real pills.
The COVID Connection
In addition to the fentanyl-laced street drugs, pandemic closures also contributed to the high number of overdoses. Dr. Paul Hardy, who runs Recovery for Life, a drug treatment center in Virginia, told CBN News far too many recovering addicts relapsed when they could no longer attend support group meetings.
"Then they were alone and that isolation is the worst thing that can happen for someone who struggles with substance abuse," he said.
A disruption of routine schedule combined with being cooped up at home with family members who can "trigger" drug use also contributed to relapses.
Some drug prevention organizations, such as those affiliated with police departments, are taking action to stop future overdoses by giving known users two things: fentanyl test strips, which detect the substance in other drugs, and Narcan, the opioid-reversal spray.
Drug users are being advised to never use when they are alone so that if an accidental overdose occurs, the person with them can administer the Narcan nasal spray and call 911.
Users are also being warned against buying pills on the street that are in unlabeled prescription bottles or are in bottles with pills that are not identical in appearance.
While law enforcement and drug prevention organizations are trying to diminish the number of deaths among people who use illegal drugs, they say the best solution is for the user to get into drug treatment. Dr. Hardy says it's the only option that works in the long run.
"I've seen people get better, honestly, mostly through the power of Christ," he said. "When they give themselves to the Lord and say, 'I'm submitting myself to you,' I call it surrendering to the process."
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