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For the first time, drug overdose deaths in the U.S. have topped 100,000

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

For the first time in our history, more than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in a 12-month period. That's according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, covering the period between April 2020 and April of this year - more deaths than were caused by guns and car crashes combined. Now, it's thought that mental health issues brought on by the pandemic and the wider availability of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and methamphetamine, are partly to blame. So how do we reverse this trend? Joining us now is Dr. Rahul Gupta, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which coordinates federal drug policy. Doctor, welcome.

RAHUL GUPTA: Thank you for having me. Good morning.

MARTINEZ: Can you explain why we've seen this sharp rise in the number of overdoses?

GUPTA: Well, we know that historically, for the first time, we've seen this rise, and the majority of these numbers are because of synthetic opioids. That includes a drug called fentanyl. And the widespread of this drug, which is up to a hundred times more powerful than morphine, causes the deaths, unfortunately. Of course, that has been a leading reason for the rise in deaths.

MARTINEZ: Now, are deaths more prevalent amongst particular demographics or possibly regions in the U.S.?

GUPTA: Well, we have the preliminary data right now that shows us where these deaths are happening, and of course, many of these are the same states that have had increased numbers previously. That includes sections of the Appalachia and other communities. But we're also, generally, seeing trends increase the last few years in disparities as well. So we're seeing now a lot more people of color being impacted, which had not been previously the case. However, we are still looking at these current numbers to understand the patterns as well.

MARTINEZ: So what, then, can the Office of National Drug Control Policy do that maybe it's not already doing?

GUPTA: We believe that no one should die of an overdose simply because they do not have access to naloxone. And naloxone is an antidote that can reverse, quickly, the effects of the opioid overdose. We are also taking a very - while building addiction infrastructure. It's a approach that requires public health and public safety elements to address this crisis. We've included not only the $4 billion in the American Rescue Plan to help people address mental health disorders, as well as substance use disorders, but also that there are about $30 million that includes support for harm-reduction services, such as syringe service programs for the first time.

MARTINEZ: Doctor, you mentioned syringe service programs. Back in 2018, in West Virginia, you supported closing West Virginia's syringe service program. What maybe has changed your mind about that?

GUPTA: Yeah, my record is clear. Actually, I expanded 18 programs in West Virginia. The program itself, the one you're mentioning, had closed itself, basically. So I've always been very supportive of harm-reduction programs, including syringe service programs. So I am in strong support of enhancing evidence-based programs like syringe service programs, like fentanyl test strips, that now we're able to provide federal funding for fentanyl test strips in an effort to help curb the dramatic spikes in drug overdose deaths.

MARTINEZ: What about safe consumption sites, Doctor? Back in October, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said that the Biden administration was open to safe consumption sites. That's where people can go under medical supervision to inject drugs. How do you feel about safe consumption sites?

GUPTA: There is a litigation matter that's ongoing at this time, so it is very difficult for us to comment on that. But what I can say is we are looking at all of the research and other aspects that will look at the evidence behind harm-reduction practices in the real world. So it's very important for us to continue to focus on that aspect.

MARTINEZ: But if the president seems OK with it - wondering, what would be the issue?

GUPTA: I believe what we are doing right now is to continue to improve and increase the number of harm-reduction practices that have clear evidence behind them. That includes syringe service programs. That includes making sure that we are providing naloxone to save lives. And it especially includes fentanyl test strips and allowing federal funding for those. Now, we are continuing to look at ways to support research on the clinical effectiveness of emerging harm-reduction practices in real-world settings, as were noted in the Biden-Harris first-year drug policy priorities.

MARTINEZ: That's Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Doctor, thank you.

GUPTA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.