I think we can all agree that 2020 was a bad year all around. Drug abuse and overdose was no exception.  In 2020, the number of drug overdose deaths increased 30% to an estimated 93,000 people, the largest number of annual overdose deaths ever recorded in this county. For comparison, when I first started writing on this blog about the opioid crisis five years ago (2016), there were an estimated 63,000 drug overdose deaths. Last year there were an estimated 72,000 deaths. This is a tragedy that affects all ages but more so the young – over 60% of these overdose deaths occurred in the under 45 year old age groups.

Opioids, particularly Fentanyl, represent close to 75% of the fatal drug overdoses, but psychostimulants such as methamphetamines and prescription pain drugs have also contributed to the increased fatalities. Most of the deaths are believed to be caused by contaminated drugs.

Some observers point to the Covid-19 pandemic to explain this alarming increase. Job loses, social isolation, and occasionally the trauma of friends or family contracting COVID-19 may have led to more drug abuse and increased overdose fatalities. Indeed, the statistics indicate that overdose deaths really started taking off in March 2020, strongly suggesting that the pandemic helped drive the increase. The crisis was further compounded by the pandemic because people who were in recovery, getting treatment, or wanted treatment were often unable to get those services due to the lockdowns and other COVID-19 restrictions. Losing the face-to-face interaction that is often crucial to recovery worsened the struggle for many.

The opioid crisis in this country keeps getting worse. Many observers mark the beginning of the crisis to the pharmaceutical companies that heavily marketed their synthetic opioids in the 1990’s. While the pharmaceutical companies have been sued and prosecuted for their role in the crisis, the problem has grown and as tight controls made the pharmaceutical synthetic opioids more difficult to get, addicts have turned to the black market – especially to Fentanyl.

On my side of the aisle, drug addicts often turn to minor crime to support their habit, such as petty theft, drug sales, or credit card fraud. California law and the courts recognize that the drug addict is not necessarily a criminal. Collaborative courts and diversionary sentencing are some of the ways the courts are trying to address the issue.  These alternatives to punishment help but they can’t solve this national epidemic.

Since the opioid abuse epidemic began in 1999, which is the year most experts cite as the year it began in earnest, almost one million people have died from a drug overdose. Assuming COVID-19 is conquered soon, far more Americans will have died from a drug overdose than COVID-19. Just as this country set its sights on ending the pandemic, so too, we need to have a national strategy for ending the drug epidemic.

Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg is available for a free consultation regarding your criminal matter. He may be contacted at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or by email at bill@williamweinberg.com.