CDC: Annual Heroin Deaths Now Surpass Gun Fatalities

By McCarton Ackerman 12/13/16

Heroin deaths also surpassed painkillers for the first time since the late '90s.

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New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paints a bleak portrait of heroin addiction in the U.S., with heroin deaths surpassing gun fatalities for the first time ever.

The new information is particularly troubling because gun fatalities outnumbered heroin deaths by more than 5 to 1 as recently as 2007. CDC data released last Thursday (Nov. 8) also showed that heroin deaths also surpassed that of traditional opioid painkillers, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, for the first time since the late ‘90s. Opioid deaths surpassed 30,000 in 2015, a jump of 5,000 from the previous year, while heroin deaths increased by 2,000 during that same time period.

"The epidemic of deaths involving opioids continues to worsen," said CDC Director Tom Frieden in a statement. "Prescription opioid misuse and use of heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl are intertwined and deeply troubling problems."

These findings come on the heels of data released last Tuesday (Dec. 6) by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which showed that heroin deaths tripled between 2010-2014. Approximately 10,574 people died from heroin overdose deaths in 2014, with most of the overdoses occurring in the Northeast and Midwest regions. Acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg said that "we face a public health crisis of historic proportions. Countering it requires a comprehensive approach that includes law enforcement, education, and treatment." 

Drug policy reformers have blamed widespread criminalization of heroin and other illicit drugs to the ongoing U.S. drug epidemic. Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told the Washington Post that “it drives a wedge between people who need help and the services they need. Because of criminalization and stigma, people hide their addictions from others.”

However, the way opioid addiction is handled in the U.S. could soon be getting a significant overhaul. The 21st Century Cures Act, which calls for allocating $1 billion over the next two years to opioid addiction prevention and treatment efforts, comfortably passed the Senate last Monday and receive broad bipartisan support (Dec. 5). The legislation also calls for speeding up the FDA’s drug approval process, as well as creating a substance abuse and mental health “policy laboratory” to advocate for better treatment of these diseases.

President Obama is expected to give his signature on it in the coming days. He penned an editorial for the Salt Lake Tribune that was published last Monday (Dec. 5), expressing his support for the act and declaring that “those devastated by the heroin and prescription opioid epidemic cannot wait any longer. They need help now, and we need to help turn the tide of this epidemic.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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