The Center for Disease Control says deaths from legal and illegal opioid and prescription drug overdoses hit 33,091 in 2015.
That’s up 15.5 percent, or an additional 4,444 deaths, from 2014, when 28,647 people died opioid-induced deaths.
Deaths from one particularly dangerous synthetic drug, fentanyl, rose a staggering 72 percent from 2014 to 2015, with 9,580 dying from overdoses in 2014 compared to 5,544 in 2014. Fentanyl is extremely potent: 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin, which is three times stronger than morphine, from which it’s synthesized. One quarter of one milligram can kill a person.
The heroin epidemic continues to take its toll, with overdose deaths rising 23 percent in one year, or 10,574 fatal overdoses in 2014 up to 12,990 in 2015.
Overdose deaths from legal prescription opioids rose four percent from 2014’s 16,941 up to 17,536 in 2015. These drugs include oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone.
In 2015, illegal opioids, including fentanyl, killed 19,885 people in 2015. That’s 60 percent of the 2015 death toll.
All told, legal opioids, illegal opioids, and legal and illegal opioids used together killed 33,091. There is some small overlap in deaths involving prescription painkillers and illegal opioids. Critics say legal opioids put users on track to eventually buy illegal opioids.
Opioids change the way the brain perceives pain, binding to molecules on opioid-receptor cells, some of which are located in the brain stem. Overdosing on opioids can stop breathing, killing the user or causing permanent brain damage, and overdoses can happen when a user takes more and more of the drug as they build up a tolerance to the high.
Manufacturers of narcotic painkillers glossed over the addiction risks of their pills while marketing them, and the medical establishment began to view pain as something to eliminate in patients, not to tolerate. This has in part driven the massive increase in preventable deaths: There is no overall change in the amount of pain Americans reported feeling, yet since 1999 the amount of prescription opioids sold has tripled, the CDC says. And now more powerful, illicit opioids have become available, spiraling into more deaths.
According to the Washington Post, Democrats, Republicans and lobbyists have jointly worked to minimize regulation of the legal opioid industry.
While the Obama administration called for—and received from the GOP-controlled Congress—over $1 billion in funding for treating addicts, Obama continues to commute the sentences of armed drug traffickers convicted for dealing deadly drugs, including heroin. “At the heart of America is the idea that we’re all imperfect,” Obama said of allowing drug traffickers back on the streets by March. “We all make mistakes.”
The CDC says 91 people die every single day of opioid overdoses.