It was in November of 2011 that Dr. Thomas Frieden, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) held a news conference to announce what he called, “the shocking news … that we are in the middle of an epidemic of prescription drug overdose.”
In retrospect, the really shocking news was that Dr. Frieden was the first federal official to make an honest report on the problem. No ranking officer at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), or the Justice Department, no one from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (the Drug Czar), or National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), or the Food and Drug Administration had said much of anything about the over-prescription of opioid painkillers, even though they had killed 15,000 Americans in 2010.
“It’s an epidemic,” Dr. Frieden repeated, “but it can be stopped.”
Seven years later the epidemic has not been stopped. Deaths from narcotic overdoses passed 70,000 in 2017, that’s almost 200 drug overdose deaths a day, and abuse of prescription painkillers remains a leading cause.
But here’s what passes for “good news” on drug overdose deaths; CDC statistics suggest that 2017 may have been the peak year of the epidemic. For the past few months, the drug overdose death rate has shown signs of coming down from the 2017 spike. Slightly declining are deaths from prescription opioids (oxycodone, hydrocodone and oxycontin), and from heroin. Deaths from cocaine are flat, while fatal overdoses of methamphetamines are up. But, what’s driving the record-setting levels of drug deaths in America are the non-prescription opioid street drugs; the various versions of fentanyl. Some 29,000 of those 70,000 drug deaths last year in America were caused by fentanils, up from 3,000 just five years before.
The disappearance from street markets of carfentanil, the deadliest of the fentanil variants, local officials in Dayton, Ohio say helps to account for a 54% drop in drug deaths in that heavily-addicted city over the past year. Dealers stopped using carfentail to boost their heroin because, as DEA agent in Ohio told the New York Times, it was killing off too many of their customers.
If this analysis is correct, it suggests that the organized criminals behind the market for street drugs have more and better moral character than the manufacturers of the prescription opioid OxyContin, Perdue Pharma, or the three mega-distributors of prescription drugs in America. McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health all watched the rising sales of the opioid prescription drugs and the inevitable consequences in remarkably parallel rises in addiction, community and family destruction, and death, and did little more than count their profits, and take their occasional losses from litigation or prosecution as just the cost of doing business.
Chris McGreal is a regular writer for Guardian US and a former Guardian correspondent in Washington, Johannesburg and Jerusalem. His new book, American Overdose: The Opioid Tragedy in Three Acts was published by Public Affairs Press.