In 2015, more than 50,000 Americans died from drug overdoses. This is a staggering number, especially when compared to traffic accidents, which claimed 37,757 lives in the same year.
Drug overdose deaths also outpaced the 36,252 people who died due to gun-related injuries in 2015.
This data comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the analysis was conducted by reporters with access to the database. According to the findings, “Heroin deaths rose 23 percent in one year, to 12,989,” while “[a]buse of drugs like Oxycontin and Vicodin killed 17,536,” CBS reports.
The high rate of overdose-related deaths has largely been attributed to heroin and prescription painkiller abuse. Heroin is an illicit drug, and law enforcement efforts to crack down on its use have increased in recent years, with the National Seizure System confirming there has been an “80 percent increase in heroin seizures in the past five years.”
Despite increased scrutiny and efforts to combat addiction, heroin abuse leading to death was not the only type of fatal drug overdose to increase in 2015. Deaths from illicit fentanyl rose 73 percent, prompting many to question how effective current prohibitionist drug policies are.
Despite the popular belief that tougher enforcement equals less drug abuse, the real world consequences of the drug war appear to prove the opposite. With an annual budget of over $2.8 billion, the Drug Enforcement Administration is not getting its money’s worth.
Enforcement-Driven Drug Abuse and Its Impact on Life Expectancy
According to the data provided by the WONDER Online Database, eight common causes of death saw an increase in 2015, leading to a drop in the nation’s life expectancy rate. For the first time in 20 years, Americans are, on average, likely to live 78.8 years, “a decrease of one-tenth of a year,” CBS notes in another article.
Some of the areas most affected by increased drug abuse include Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, and coastal New England. According to the analysis, “counties in the Midwest, California, and Texas saw little to no change in drug overdose deaths during this period.”
We recently learned that in states where medical marijuana is legal, reliance on prescription painkillers is curtailedsignificantly. According to one study, opioid overdose deaths have also dropped in states with legal access to cannabis.
In the case of California, the legalization of medical marijuana may have helped keep the rate of drug abuse down. In states like Texas, the “tough on crime” mentality has been suffering major legal blows ever since 2007, when legislation created “an alternative to perpetually feeding money into prison construction to warehouse non-violent offenders,” the Washington Post reported in 2014.
The effort eventually “made it easier for former prisoners to reintegrate into society after release by making it less likely their employers would know about or act on their criminal records.”
This was because the new law gave specialized drug courts more power over these cases while revamping parole, so violations could be punished swiftly “without automatically sending people back to jail for long terms.”
While imperfect, the small reforms the Texas legislature instituted helped to spark a movement that continues to grow. With the increased number of states riding the legalization wave, the rates of drug abuse in locations where weed is legal could very well drop.
Why the Drug War Leads to More Abuse
With the drug market involving so many illicit components, providers have few, if any, incentives to produce quality drugs. Because addicts are often unable to obtain help legally and fear being hammered by drug laws, they frequently run to the shadows, allowing the abuse to go unchecked.
With the federal government cracking down on legal opioids, as well, people suffering from pain and trauma are beginning to turn to the black market for their drug needs, which also invites abuse.
In places like Canada, addicts are being given the opportunity to obtain treatment without having to face stringent legal consequences. Even some police departments across the United States are adopting a similar non-punitive approach. While these solutions are not a panacea, they are a start.
But until the drug market is finally freed — and the sale and use of drugs are no longer seen as criminal acts — abuse will continue to grow. Unless, of course, drug law enforcement suffers a blow thanks to the ongoing movement to help states retrieve their power to say no to the federal government.