Overdose deaths in the U.S. reached record levels in 2021

New CDC data released Wednesday indicates that deaths from drug overdoses in the U.S. reached a record-high last year. More than 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2021, the highest annual death toll ever recorded. Deaths from fentanyl, methamphetamine and cocaine rose sharply. Dr. Nora Volkow, the National Institute On Drug Abuse director, joins Geoff Bennett to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    America's opioid crisis shows no signs of abating. New data out today indicates that deaths from drug overdoses in the U.S. reached a record high last year.

    Geoff Bennett breaks down the latest.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Judy, new numbers out today from the CDC show how drug overdoses have surged during the pandemic.

    More than 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2021. That's the highest annual death toll ever recorded and a 15 percent increase from the year before. Deaths involving fentanyl, meth and cocaine rose sharply.

    For more, we're joined by Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

    Dr. Volkow, it's good to have you with us.

    And to what do you attribute these numbers? Fentanyl-related deaths are up. Meth and cocaine overdose deaths also increased. Why?

    Dr. Nora Volkow, Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse: There are two factors.

    One of them is all of the stress and the uncertainty that the COVID pandemic brought that made many people vulnerable to drug-taking as a way to cope with the stressors. But the other one is, during the COVID pandemic, we have seen an acceleration of the distribution of fentanyl all over the United States.

    And fentanyl is being used not just to be sold by itself, but very frequently sold to contaminate heroin or, more recently, to contaminate cocaine and contaminate methamphetamine, and, even more recently, to contaminate illicitly manufactured prescription drugs.

    And because fentanyl is so potent, it increases the risk of overdose significantly. So, people that in the past were able to take drugs more or less safely are now actually a very high risk of overdosing.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    I want to ask you more about the people who were unknowingly exposed, people who intended to buy non-opioid street drugs or were buying what turned out to be counterfeit pills like Adderall that were cut with a lethal dose of fentanyl.

    Help us understand more about the proliferation of those types of drugs and what can be done about it.

  • Dr. Nora Volkow:

    Well, we haven't, per se, seen a very significant increase in the number of people that are using cocaine, but we have seen a very dramatic increase in people that are dying from the use of cocaine, and similarly for methamphetamine.

    This means that the drugs cocaine and methamphetamine that these people are purchasing are actually much more lethal. And this is driven by the fact that they are frequently contaminated with fentanyl.

    And, as you mentioned, people that may actually be seeking out an amphetamine to prepare for an exam or they cannot fall asleep, and they buy a benzodiazepine, they buy it in the illicit drug market, they can end up with a drug that has fentanyl. And that increases — they are at very high risk of overdosing.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    I want to shift our focus to solutions.

    In terms of treatment, what works and what doesn't work?

  • Dr. Nora Volkow:

    We know that, if you have an opioid use disorder, or, that is, opioid addiction, there are medications that are actually very effective in preventing withdrawal and relapse and preventing you from overdosing.

    So, if you have an opioid addiction, there are medications that should be given to people. If — because now that has shifted towards people that may be addicted to cocaine or methamphetamine, for which we do not have medications, but which we have behavioral therapeutic interventions, we should be able to offer those therapeutics to people like them.

    And, importantly, when you start to look at people that actually do not have a problem with addiction, but are occasional users, we need to provide them with education and screening to ensure that they are actually aware of the consequences that this drug-taking may take.

    And, importantly, we also need to consider that we have a very effective medication for reversing overdoses, Narcan or naloxone, which works if you're overdosing with opioids. But if you're overdosing with methamphetamine contaminated with fentanyl, naloxone does not — is not as effective, will not be effective if you're — if what you have is a combination of toxicity.

    So we need — and that is an area that requires actually research development to have alternatives.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Dr. Volkow, is this a uniquely American problem? Are other countries grappling with this?

    And what more do you think needs to be done to address this surge of opioid overdoses?

  • Dr. Nora Volkow:

    Extraordinary question.

    And I would say that the United States is among the countries with the highest rates of use. Canada also has seen an increase in overdose deaths. And it's also driven very much by fentanyl, and some of the Northern or European countries, but not at the level of the whole country, not at the rates that we are observing.

    So, we need to ask ourselves that question. What is making Americans vulnerable to — or — to drug-taking. And one of the components we know about these that the social determinants of health, the social disparities, the diseases of despair that are driving people to escape their realities by taking drugs.

    And the problem now is that the drugs — those drugs that they may be taking are actually extremely risky and dangerous.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Dr. Nora Volkow is the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

    Thanks so much for your time and for your insights.

  • Dr. Nora Volkow:

    Thanks.

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