Slight fall in ‘staggeringly high’ US drug death figures

There were 107,543 fatal drug overdoses in the US in the 12-month period to December 2023 – the equivalent of 300 people a day – according to the latest provisional figures from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

107,543 fatal drug overdoses in the US
More than one million people have died since the country’s drug death crisis began

Although the figure is 3 per cent down on 2022’s total, the numbers remain ‘staggeringly high’ says the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), with more than a million people dead since the country’s drug death crisis began. The data also shows increases in fatalities in a number of states, ‘particularly on the west coast where fentanyl has more recently entered their drug supply’, the organisation points out. Overdose deaths in Oregon were up by almost 30 per cent, Nevada by 29 per cent, Washington state by 27 per cent, and Alaska by more than 44 per cent.

The 107,543 figure is the predicted number of overdose deaths for the year ending December 2023, says CDC, with the number of reported deaths standing at 103,793. While the reported provisional count shows the number of deaths processed in the 12-month period, overdose deaths are ‘often initially reported with no cause of death, pending investigation’, CDC points out, as they can require lengthy investigations including toxicology tests. ‘Reported provisional counts may not include all deaths that occurred during a given time period,’ it states.

Many in the UK fear that the Taliban’s crackdown on opium production in Afghanistan and increasing numbers of highly potent synthetic opioids entering the UK’s drug supply could lead to dramatically increased drug death numbers here, with researchers at King’s College recently warning that the powerful non-opioid tranquiliser xylazine had also now infiltrated the UK’s drug supply and was not limited to heroin supplies.

US drug death figures
More than 115m pills containing illicit fentanyl were seized in the US last year

A recent study funded by the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute on Drug Abuse found that more than 115m pills containing illicit fentanyl were seized in the US last year, 2,300 times more than in 2017. A study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, meanwhile, showed that between 2011 and 2021 an estimated 321,566 children in the US lost a parent to drug overdose.

‘Today’s data showing a decrease in drug overdoses over the 12-month period through December 2023 is heartening news for our nation and demonstrates we are making progress to prevent deaths from drug overdoses,’ said CDC chief medical officer Dr Deb Houry. ‘The decrease is a testament to the hard work by all of our partners in this effort and the work being done on the ground as part of a coordinated federal effort on prevention, services, and harm reduction. However, this does not mean we have accomplished our mission. The data show we still lost over 100,000 people last year, meaning there are still families and friends losing their loved ones to drug overdoses at staggering numbers.’

‘Continuing to lose over 107,500 lives to preventable overdoses highlights the failure of our elected leaders to save lives and the shortcomings of criminalisation,’ said DPA executive director Kassandra Frederique. ‘In fact, overdose occurs in jails and prisons at high rates and overdose risks increase after an individual is released from incarceration. We can do more to expand access to evidence-based tools that work by reducing barriers to medications for opioid use disorder, opening overdose prevention centres, expanding syringe service programmes, and increasing access to culturally competent harm reduction programmes and treatment options. It is our collective responsibility to ensure evidence-based services that keep people alive and barrier-free treatment options that meet people’s needs are available to all.’

Provisional drug overdose death counts available here

Estimated number of children who lost a parent to drug overdose in the US from 2011 to 2021 available here

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