Drug Overdoses
Are Back on the Rise

Media headlines
Photo by vm/iStockphoto.com

In 2019, media headlines were continuously announcing reports from the CDC that indicated 2018 was the first year since the 1980s that American drug overdose deaths had fallen. The decrease in fatalities was not significant—just a four percent decline. But this made headlines nonetheless, and many thought that the U.S. was finally getting a handle on its drug crisis.

Sadly, that conclusion was erroneous. The CDC just released preliminary data for 2019’s drug death toll. Not only did the numbers exceed 2018’s, but they even exceeded 2017’s (2017 had the highest drug-related death toll yet recorded). And to make matters worse, estimates for 2020’s overdose deaths are pretty grim, particularly in light of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on addicts.

What will the American people need to accomplish in order to finally halt the increase of overdose deaths?

Preliminary Data from the CDC

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently published a preliminary report for 2019’s drug overdose fatalities. The organization publishes such a report every year mid-way through the year, and then they finalize the report at the end of the year. We won’t know exactly how many people died from drug overdoses in 2019 until the end of 2020, but the preliminary data is concerning enough.

According to the CDC, drug overdoses went up about 4.8 percent in 2019, with several thousand more people dying from drug use in 2019 than in 2018. The CDC has estimated that at least 71,148 people died from drugs in 2019, with the yet-to-be-verified final tally potentially being as high as 72,041. This is a steep increase from the approximately 67,850 people who died from overdoses in 2018.

The overdose crisis is changing in other ways as well. While fatal overdoses rose by more than ten percent in 18 states and the District of Columbia, this crisis is no longer primarily an opiate epidemic. Opiates still play a significant role in drug overdose deaths, but 2019 data indicated that overdoses involving cocaine and meth are increasing rapidly. In 2017, deaths involving cocaine and meth were involved in 34.7 percent of all overdose deaths. By 2019, these drugs played a role in 45 percent of deaths. That indicates that interest in and use of cocaine and meth is spreading across the United States. More people are using these substances, more people are becoming addicted to them, and more people are dying.

It is particularly concerning that drug use (and resulting deaths) are on the rise with cocaine, meth, and other psychostimulants. The U.S. has spent the last two decades trying to curb the opiate epidemic but to no avail. With overdoses involving other substances also on the rise, the American people will have to address multiple drug epidemics at once.

The COVID-19 Pandemic Only Makes an Addict’s Life More Dangerous

Drug death
Photo by carminesalvatore/iStockphoto.com

From the data, it’s guaranteed that 2019 saw more drug overdoses than 2018 and that the drug epidemic is still present and, in fact, getting worse.

But what about 2020? Given the COVID-19 pandemic, the massive disruption that the health crisis has had on the nation, and the redirecting of public health efforts to tackle COVID, many addicts are left in an even more dire predicament than before.

Because of the already present (pre-COVID) trend of increasing drug use, which is now made worse by the viral pandemic, 2020’s drug-related death toll will likely be even higher than 2019’s.

Experts Weigh in on Increasing Drug Deaths and the Effects of COVID-19 on Addicts:

Dr. Michael Barnett, a primary care doctor and an assistant professor of health policy and management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, commented on the fact that the current overdose epidemic is not just an opiate epidemic, rather an epidemic of multiple addictions that run rampant across the United States. “We have called it the opioid crisis, but really it’s the addiction crisis in the U.S. Overdoses are a late-stage end result of a complex brew of factors that lead to people being addicted and using substances that predispose them to overdose.”

As if 2019’s preliminary numbers were not bad enough, predictions for 2020 are even grimmer. There are early warning signs that America’s addiction epidemic is only getting worse amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “We have two things colliding: the stress of the uncertainty of what’s going to happen with COVID, and also the uncertainty of what’s going to happen to you, (with high levels of) unemployment, or if you are studying, what will happen to your education. And then the social distancing and isolation that makes the whole process much worse.”

  “Almost everything that is not COVID or
economic downturn-related has sort of been swept aside, so I think it’s very hard to get policymakers’ attention to a lot of these things. As the overdose data comes out, and it’s clear that we have a crisis that’s getting even more out of hand than before, I would hope that we have
more momentum for change.”  

Dr. Barnett also provided valuable insight into how the COVID pandemic has made conditions even more difficult for addicts. “Almost everything that is not COVID or economic downturn-related has sort of been swept aside, so I think it’s very hard to get policymakers’ attention to a lot of these things. As the overdose data comes out, and it’s clear that we have a crisis that’s getting even more out of hand than before, I would hope that we have more momentum for change.”

Addiction Treatment—The Safest Way to Avoid Overdose

The most effective and safest way for an addict to avoid an overdose is for him or her to seek treatment at a qualified drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. Drug rehabs, primarily residential drug rehabs, can help addicts arrest their decline and give them a way out of the addiction trap.

Narconon offers a unique, highly successful program that helps both drug addicts and alcohol addicts overcome their addictions and create a rewarding, substance-free life. Narconon has helped thousands of addicts walk away from mind-altering substances.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, please do not wait another day to get help. Don’t let yourself or someone you care about become a statistic. Contact Narconon right away.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, MCAP, RAS



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.