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Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. are surging

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. continue to surge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data this week showing drug overdoses killed more than 107,000 people in the U.S. last year. That's another record. Correspondent Brian Mann reports on addiction for NPR, and he's here with us now to tell us more. Brian, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: So how bad was the increase in fatal drug overdoses last year?

MANN: It was terrible, I mean, a 15% increase on top of a roughly 30% increase the year before. And overall, fatal overdoses have more than doubled, twice as many people dying in just five years.

MARTIN: Is this happening all over the country or are we seeing some places affected more than others?

MANN: Yeah, the whole country is seeing a public health crisis around these overdoses, but it's especially bad in some places. This new CDC data shows a broad swath of the South seeing drug deaths rise 25% to 30% in 2021. Also, the state of Kansas, where I am today talking to you, saw a 42% increase in fatal overdoses in a single year.

MARTIN: Do we know why this is happening?

MANN: The big culprit, and we've been talking about this, is this synthetic opioid fentanyl. Mexican drug cartels are mixing this powerful, highly addictive opioid into much of the illegal street drug supply, not just heroin and fake opioid pain pills, but it's turning up in methamphetamines and cocaine and other street drugs, including illegally sold Adderall. And fentanyl, of course, is just so powerful. Even a tiny miscalculation in dosage can be lethal.

MARTIN: Is there a national response to this? Well, this crisis didn't start during the Biden administration. So I'm interested in, you know, what was happening during the Trump administration? And is the Biden administration doing anything different?

MANN: You know, the Trump administration did try. And now the Biden administration is also struggling to reduce this explosion in overdose deaths. Officials are scrambling to make it easier to gain access to medications used to treat opioid use disorder, things like naloxone, buprenorphine and methadone, which do really help people survive. But what NPR has found in our reporting is that there are these huge gaps, Michel, of people, for example, leaving prison with addiction or people leaving emergency rooms with addiction. They're not being guided into long-term care. They're not getting those life-saving medications. And so as a result, people relapse and then they overdose.

MARTIN: And maybe people might think this is a naive question, but what about stopping fentanyl from reaching the U.S.? Is there any success in that?

MANN: The short answer is no. You know, the U.S. is seizing record amounts of fentanyl coming over the border from Mexico, including a 50-fold increase in fake pain opioid pills that were seized last year. But no one I talked to in federal law enforcement thinks they're really making a dent in the supply. Another thing, Michel, that's just a big problem, according to many of the experts I talked to is that American drug policy remains sort of stuck between two big ideas, one focused on interdiction and the war on drugs, the other on public health. And so just to give you one example, there are now safe consumption sites in New York City where people are being allowed to take their illegal drugs under medical supervision. That's shown to prevent these fatal overdoses, save lives. But it's technically illegal, and it's controversial. So despite this death toll that keeps rising and rising, the Biden administration hasn't given the green light to allow these safe-use programs across the country.

MARTIN: That is NPR correspondent Brian Mann. He reports on addiction, and he's speaking with us today from Wichita, Kan. Brian, it's a very sobering and disturbing story, but thank you so much for sharing this reporting with us.

MANN: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.