CDC Data Confirms Overdose Deaths Rise Nationwide, Despite Increasing Criminalization Efforts

Press Release March 21, 2024
Media Contact

Maggie Hart [email protected]

New York, NY – Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its annual overdose death data for 2022. Per this new data, overdose deaths have reached record highs. The CDC reports that there were 107,941 overdose-related deaths in 2022, a slight increase from 2021.  You can see a deeper analysis and visual representation here.

“These overdose death rates are heartbreaking and require urgent action,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “These are not just numbers. They are lives. We all know someone whose life has been touched by the overdose crisis. These people are our parents, our children, our friends, and our neighbors. And their deaths are entirely preventable. This data illustrates what those of us advocating for drug decriminalization have long known – criminalizing drug possession cannot solve our overdose crisis. In fact, as this data shows, it is only making the crisis worse. It’s past time for our elected officials to focus on investing in the addiction services and social supports that will prevent overdose deaths, instead of doubling down on criminalization. This includes evidence-based treatment, medications for opioid use disorder that can cut overdose risk in half, drug checking to detect adulterants like fentanyl, overdose prevention centers, and safer supply. We don’t have time left to waste rehashing failed, punitive policies.”

The unregulated and unpredictable drug supply, and the development of strong synthetic opioids like fentanyl, are driving the national overdose death crisis. It is drug prohibition that is driving the development of stronger, more potent drugs. As heroin overdoses began to rise in 2010, crackdowns on the drug increased. As heroin became harder to find, fentanyl–a synthetic opioid–began to appear. This phenomenon is known as the “iron law of prohibition” where harsh law enforcement of one drug leads to the development of more potent drugs. Now, people are dying at higher rates of overdose involving stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine too.

Elected officials across the country continue to call for disproven, ineffective criminalization policies in response to this crisis. In 2022, all states except one (Oregon) criminalized low-level drug possession, and all states criminalized drug sales. Deaths remained high. Fentanyl-related substances have been federally criminalized since 2018. As this data demonstrates, overdose rates have increased across the country regardless of these punitive drug laws.

“Today’s data emphasizes what we have seen for the last 50 years: Criminalizing drug possession worsens the overdose crisis and is not a solution.” said Lieutenant Diane M. Goldstein (Ret.), executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. “We can’t solve public health issues with a law enforcement approach. There is no arresting our way out of the overdose crisis. I worked and supervised narcotics and gang units. Eventually, I saw that no matter how much we ramp up enforcement efforts, criminalization will not stop the flow of drugs into our community or prevent people from dying. To curb this crisis, we need to increase access to the addiction services and support people need: treatment, overdose prevention centers, outreach teams to connect people to care, and housing. More criminalization is a false promise of change.”

Criminalization drives the overdose crisis and does not reduce overdose deaths.  People are 27 times more likely to die from overdose within two weeks of release from incarceration compared to the general population. In fact, criminalization can deter people from asking for help during an overdose emergency. And despite an urgent need for a health-based approach to the overdose crisis, there are barriers to proven interventions. For example, fear of federal intervention is a barrier for many jurisdictions that want to establish overdose prevention centers, harm reduction programs are under attack, and medications for opioid use disorder that reduce opioid cravings and withdrawal symptoms, while cutting overdose risk in half, are difficult to access due to federal regulations and stigma.

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About the Drug Policy Alliance 

The Drug Policy Alliance is the leading organization in the U.S. working to end the drug war, repair its harms, and build a non-punitive, equitable, and regulated drug market. We envision a world that embraces the full humanity of people, regardless of their relationship to drugs. We advocate that the regulation of drugs be grounded in evidence, health, equity, and human rights. In collaboration with other movements and at every policy level, we change laws, advance justice, and save lives. Learn more at drugpolicy.org.

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