In the September issue of the Rosenthal Report, we examine data confirming 2017 as the worst year yet for the opioid epidemic, explore the looming legal showdown over safe injection sites, and urge caution as the legalization and commercialization of marijuana accelerates.
Drug overdose deaths at record high
Latest data from the Centers for Disease Control confirm forecasts that 2017 would be the worst year yet for the opioid epidemic. According to nearly complete reporting from the states, more than 72,000 Americans died from drug overdose, an increase of 9.5 percent from 2016, and the highest death toll ever recorded. About two-thirds of those deaths are linked to opiods, especially the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl that the CDC says is replacing less potent heroin and prescription opioid pills as the biggest killer.
Overdose deaths rose sharply in some states already hit hard by the epidemic: 27 percent in New Jersey and 17 percent in Ohio as well as Indiana and West Virginia. But several states that introduced comprehensive public health campaigns and increased access to addiction treatment saw overdose deaths fall: 7.1 percent in Rhode Island, 5.8 percent in Vermont, and 1.1 percent in Massachusetts.
The epidemic continues to spread almost one year after President Trump declared a national health emergency - and then told Congress to figure out the details. While the House has passed dozens of bills, the Senate might not wrap up its version until the end of the year. In any event, there’s nothing in the legislation that would fundamentally change the current approach to treating addiction or allocate the massive funding needed to address a crisis that kills nearly 200 people a day. As some states have shown, there are effective strategies to bring this epidemic under control, but these would require leadership on a national level that is sorely lacking.
Safe injection sites v. the Department of Justice
A showdown is looming between cities that want to open safe injection sites for drug addicts and the Department of Justice, which says such facilities are not only illegal but also fail to curb drug use and drug-related crime. Currently, San Francisco is edging closer to opening what would be the nation’s first safe site, where substance abusers can shoot up under supervised conditions and obtain information about drug treatment. The mayors of New York, Philadelphia and Seattle are also planning safe sites, and remain defiant in the face of DOJ opposition. In August, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein published an op ed article in the New York Times warning he would take “swift and aggressive action” action against safe sites. As the rhetoric heats up, the Rosenthal Center proposes an alternative to the safe site concept: treatment transition centers that, rather than facilitating surrender to drugs, encourages addicts to enter life-changing treatment (see August Rosenthal Report.)
Mixed messages about marijuana
Cannabis-infused edibles are on the menu at many restaurants and pot-laced body wraps can be found at spas. The drug is touted on Wall Street as an investment opportunity, while Big Tobacco and Big Booze eye stakes in pot production. But as legalization and commercialization of the drug continues, there are also warnings about pot’s potential danger. A recent study found that low levels of THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, linger in breast milk for up to six days after nursing mothers use the drug. In Colorado, drivers in fatal crashes increasingly test positive for marijuana. And a growing number of Americans report near-constant cannabis use, writes Annie Lowrey in her Atlantic column, “America’s Invisible Pot Addicts.” As a result, cannabis-use disorder is becoming far more common than many realize, Lowrey says, due in part to easier access and stronger pot.
With marijuana marketed as a lifestyle product and panacea for many ills, including depression and opioid addiction, we agree with Lowrey’s call for “reintroducing reasonable skepticism” into the national conversation. Caution is critical as commercial interests attempt to drive the legalization and regulatory debate.