United States: We can prevent overdose deaths if we change how we think about them

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United States: We can prevent overdose deaths if we change how we think about them

30 August 2023
Ryan Hampton

’ve been living in recovery from opioid use disorder for eight and a half years, and this might be a weird thing to say about addiction, but I feel lucky—like I dodged a bullet. I was addicted to opioids in Florida throughout the early 2000s, during the heyday of pill mills that flooded the streets with powerful pharmaceuticals like OxyContin. I say I’m lucky because this was just before the drug supply turned into a toxic sludge of potent fentanyl analogues, mysterious tranquilizers, and deadly counterfeit pills. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if I were using today. The chances of my survival in these dire conditions would be slim to none.

There’s a saying that “dead people can’t recover,” and I know it’s true. In 2022, an average of 300 Americans died from an overdose every single day. That’s an average of 109,680 human souls. We’re losing far too many people to drugs because America has yet to fully commit to a culture, policy, and strategy focused on overdose prevention.

One of the hardest parts about being an activist is getting people to care about problems that appear distant and far away. It’s all too human to perceive danger as striking someone else, somewhere else. We saw this play out with the COVID-19 pandemic. But we’ve long seen this play out with the overdose crisis in America. In 2017, the federal government declared overdoses a “public health emergency,” and ever since, the death rate has steadily ticked up and up. This was in large part due to the three waves of the “opioid epidemic” and the greed of the Sackler family that peddled OxyContin.

However, calling this an “opioid epidemic” is to mislabel and misunderstand the actual root of the problem we face: Overdose deaths are preventable; we just haven’t had the tools to efficiently do it—until now. Many users die alone in their homes, apartments, cars, in gas station bathrooms, or on the street. Families and entire communities have been shattered by loss. In a fog of pain, grief, and anger, we’re also losing the plot. The focus of drug policy right now should be on preventing as many fatal overdoses as possible. Instead, America is once again trapped in a disastrous drug war that focuses on punishment and retribution over the goal of saving lives.