Jan. 3, 2022 – “I revived a guy who OD’ed on the street this morning on my way to work,” says Pichardo, speaking matter of factly outside her workplace — Prevention Point — one of the largest needle exchange sites in the US. “Unfortunately, overdoses happen everyday in this neighbourhood.” It is not just Philadelphia. On average more than 270 people — the equivalent of 10 or 12 high school classes — overdosed and died in the US every day in the year to April 2021. This added up to a new record annual toll of more than 100,000 lives in a country caught in the grip of an addiction crisis. Almost two-thirds of those deaths were caused by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid which can be 50 times as potent as heroin and has recently displaced other legally prescribed painkillers as the biggest driver of fatal overdoses. Health experts say that some of those who died probably didn’t even know they were consuming fentanyl, which has become a common contaminant in a range of street drugs from counterfeit pills to cocaine. Many overdose victims are recovering addicts who relapsed during the pandemic, they add. The mounting death toll has alarmed US policymakers, who had hoped that a crackdown on doctor and pharmacy “shopping” by prescription painkiller users and multibillion-dollar settlements with pharmaceutical companies would ease an opioid crisis that has claimed more than 500,000 lives over the past decade. Please use the sharing tools found via the share button at the top or side of articles. 

Instead, the crisis has worsened. And is accelerating a shift by some state and federal authorities to address the problem as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice one: to accept illegal drug use takes place, aim to minimise its effects via harm reduction policies and save lives. Such a move away from the five-decade-old “war on drugs” is politically risky for the Democrats in particular, as Republicans step up attacks on the Biden administration alleging it is soft on crime ahead of midterm elections in November. But health experts say that continuing to prioritise enforcement over treatment will translate into tens of thousands more deaths.


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