Photo: AP

Depressing new numbers from the Center for Disease Control estimate that 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses last year, a record high fueled by the ongoing opioid crisis and one that tops the number of yearly deaths at the peak of AIDS, from car crashes, and from guns.

Fentanyl—the highly powerful opiate which was just used for the first time in an execution this week—is the major culprit for the 10 percent overall increase in deaths. Last year, President Trump declared the crisis a national public health emergency.

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The New York Times explains why fentanyl deaths have increased:

Strong synthetic opioids like fentanyl and its analogues have become mixed into black-market supplies of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and the class of anti-anxiety medicines known as benzodiazepines. Unlike heroin, which is derived from poppy plants, fentanyl can be manufactured in a laboratory, and it is often easier to transport because it is more concentrated.

Unexpected combinations of those drugs can overwhelm even experienced drug users. In some places, the type of synthetic drugs mixed into heroin changes often, increasing the risk for users. While the opioid epidemic was originally concentrated in rural, white populations, the death toll is becoming more widespread. The penetration of fentanyl into more heroin markets may explain recent increases in overdose deaths among older, urban black Americans; those who used heroin before the recent changes to the drug supply might be unprepared for the strength of the new mixtures.

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The epidemic has ravaged the Rust Belt and mid-Atlantic. Deaths increased more than 17 percent in Ohio, Indiana, and West Virginia, while they rose 27 percent in New Jersey. Deaths in the West remained fairly stable, as most heroin sold there is in the form of black tar, which is harder to mix with fentanyl.

As awful as these numbers are, there are signs of recovery in some places. New England saw a drop in the number of overdoses from previous years. Massachusetts, Vermont, and Rhode Island all increased addiction treatment resources, funded public health campaigns, and saw their number of overdoses fall.

Dayton, Ohio is one example of an intervention that worked. The county “reduced medical opioid prescribing; increased addiction treatment resources; expanded community access to an anti-overdose drug called naloxone; and provided addiction treatment to prisoners in its county jail,” according to the Times. These measures have led to a 60 percent decrease in ambulance calls, ER visits, and overdoses.

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Wider interventions like those in Dayton are going to be needed if we are to slow down this catastrophe.