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Drug overdose deaths grew by almost 30 percent in 2020July 15, 2021:
Fentanyl- and methamphetamine-type drugs surged roughly 50 percent in 12 months
Drug overdose deaths surged in the United States during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing nearly 30 percent in just 12 months. Provisional data recently published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that more than 92,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2020—surpassing records yet again.1
The growth was widespread throughout the country, with only two states (New Hampshire and South Dakota) spared from the jump in drug overdose deaths. Conversely, some states saw their death rates increase more than 50 percent, including Kentucky, South Carolina, Vermont, and West Virginia.
Much of the growth in drug overdose deaths was driven by synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, which increased more than 50 percent from 2019 to 2020 (see Figure 1). Fentanyl has become a key product for international drug traffickers, often finding its way as an adulterant in other drugs like heroin and cocaine, and even as an ingredient in counterfeits of common opioid prescription pills such as Oxycontin. The emergence of fentanyl in the U.S. illicit drug trade is a newer phenomenon beginning in the past decade, and it has recently spread from eastern states to increasingly affect states in the western half of the country as well.
A family of drugs called “psychostimulants”—mostly methamphetamine—also drove a large increase in deaths in 2020, up nearly 50 percent since 2019. Deaths involving methamphetamine and other psychostimulants have grown dramatically in the past few years. The increased death toll involving psychostimulants is likely caused by two factors: First, the methamphetamine trafficked in the U.S. today is generally much more potent than methamphetamine sold in the past, raising the potential risk of overdoses caused by methamphetamine. Second, methamphetamine today is often contaminated with, or used alongside, synthetic opioids, raising the risk of an overdose involving the use of multiple drugs simultaneously.
Of the main drugs involved in overdoses2, only heroin was associated with a decline in deaths during 2020—falling by less than 10 percent since 2019. Meanwhile, overdose deaths involving prescription opioids increased more than 20 percent, reversing a trend of relatively stable or even declining death rates over several years. Cocaine overdose deaths similarly increased by more than 20 percent in 2020.
1 National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). (2021, July 14). Vital Statistics Rapid Release: Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts [Data set]. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/drug-overdose-data.htm
2 The drug overdose death categories presented in the CDC data include: heroin, natural opioid analgesics (e.g., morphine and codeine) and semisynthetic opioids (e.g., oxycodone and hydrocodone), synthetic opioids such as methadone and synthetic opioids other than methadone (e.g., fentanyl and tramadol), cocaine, and psychostimulants.