The opioid epidemic is getting worse

With the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic dominating the news, we don’t hear much these days about the opioid crisis. But that doesn’t mean it has gone away.

In fact, opioid-related deaths are on the rise. In Washington, D.C., there were 282 fatal overdoses by the end of August, the latest month for which data is available. That’s one more than in all of 2019. 2020 looks like it will be the deadliest year yet in D.C. for opioid-related deaths.

The same trend exists nationwide. According to the Washington Post, more than 40 states have reported an increase in opioid fatalities this year.

What is behind the surge? It’s tempting to blame it on the coronavirus pandemic. Maybe the lockdowns are leading to an increase in despair which, in turn, is causing more overdoses. Maybe people are abstaining from treatment, or being prevented from seeking it, because of the virus and the lockdowns. Maybe social isolation means more people overdosing alone and therefore not getting emergency assistance.

None of these possibilities should be discounted. Nonetheless, it’s a fact that the surge in deaths from opioids predates the pandemic. By the end of March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had found a 16 percent increase in the number of drug overdose deaths compared to the first three months of 2019.

Another possible explanation for the spike in overdoses is that people are using more potent forms of opioids than in the past few years. The Post suggests that this may be the case in Washington, D.C.

A third possibility is that law enforcement is more lax now than in the past. Many drug dealers have been released from prison thanks to various forms of leniency, and policing has become more passive in many parts of the country.

Naturally, the Post doesn’t consider this as a possible explanation.

Neither, apparently, does the District of Columbia government. It seems to be responding to the crisis by calling for less law enforcement.

The city council has approved granting criminal immunity to people reporting drug overdoses, even if they were also using, and to those who attempt to administer naloxone, an overdose reversal drug. These moves probably make sense.

However, the city council has also voted to decriminalize drug paraphernalia. This makes little sense in the midst of rising overdoses.

Robert Contee, a D.C. police official and possible replacement for the outgoing police chief, notes that residents frequently complain about unsafely discarded paraphernalia. He also says that criminal penalties help police limit the drug supply. Contee has testified:

A needle or syringe may be an important and necessary piece of evidence for limiting drug distribution and trafficking, as well as for identifying and tracking the spread of new types of synthetic drugs.

In any case, this much is clear: (1) A few years ago, there was broad agreement that the nation faced an opioid crisis and (2) Since then, the situation has gotten worse.