More people died of a drug overdose in the U.S. last year than in any other year in history. Are things about to get even worse?

“Market Street Still Life.” September 14, 2016. (photo: reverendlukewarm)

Of the many long-term societal problems wrought or worsened by COVID-19, only a handful have begun to rear their ugly heads.

Seeing them, we are concerned that these issues, laid bare or laid open by a global pandemic and all the mitigation measures we took in response to it, are far worse than they as yet appear.

We are right to fear it.

Like vast icebergs, only the uppermost tips of these problems are visible, and the picture is unsettling verging on outright appalling. What’s worse, we sense- also correctly- that it is much too late to change course.

Whatever we bought with the sunk-costs of our quarantines, shut-downs, isolation and austerity measures; what we paid for it is finally starting to come into focus.

It’s dear.

We did things to mitigate COVID-19 we’ve never done before in response to any manmade or natural disaster- like shut down in-person public schools. What happens as a result is likely to be unprecedented, too.

America’s children paid dearly, as we all knew they would. “Kids are resilient,” or so the comforting saying goes. But as classes have returned to “normal”, not all kids have adjusted so easily. Entire schools have had to be closed for weeks at a time due to fights, behavioral problems and other disruptions teachers and administrators are at a complete loss to handle.

Standardized test scores are starting to come in and the results are about as bad as we could have feared, and much worse for already marginalized and at-risk students from low-income communities. Teen suicide attempt rates are up- way up.

Suicide rates are up, too; but not for everyone. Crime is also way, way up; but again, not for everyone.

The increase in violent and property crimes, like the increase in suicide rates, may all be attributable to the pandemic.

Then again, the world experienced the same pandemic; not every country is now grappling with the same skyrocketing crime and suicide rates.

Nor is every country experiencing the kind of uptick in fatal drug overdoses the U.S. is currently facing. 100,000 Americans died last year as a result of a drug overdose; 30,000 more than the previous year.

The most in any year in history.

The U.S. has grappled with its deadly drug crisis for decades. The problem has grown exponentially in recent years to include a homelessness crisis, which is really an offshoot of the drug crisis. Many of the nation’s homeless people are suffering from untreated drug addiction.

Nevertheless, neither political party has seemed over-inclined to do anything to address it. The nation’s drug overdose crisis didn’t make the last presidential debate; it didn’t make the one before.

Part of the problem is that no one knows quite what to do about drug overdoses. Putting more nonviolent drug offenders in prison isn’t a popular proposition at the moment, with good reason, so criminal justice reform advocates are reluctant to talk about the issue.

Advocates for universal health care don’t want drug overdoses considered a public health crisis in the way of COVID-19, though deadly drug addiction certainly seems to be spreading.

And of course, as every tyrant, parent, and well-meaning busybody has found out for themselves, there is no protecting anyone, really. Because in the end, it always comes down to protecting that person from themselves- from the consequences of their own actions and choices- and it just can’t be done.

But that isn’t to say that nothing can be done about America’s drug crisis. Some places have been more successful than others at dealing with drug addiction. The U.S. isn’t one of them.

America’s odd mixture of legal deterrence and taxation has done little to offer relief to the millions of Americans suffering from drug addiction. Other countries, and even some U.S. states, which have focused more of their efforts and resources toward treatment and prevention- as opposed to punishment- have fared much better.

Cities and states which have successfully solved their homelessness and/or drug addiction crisis report one strategy in common which has been shown to work, even if progressives aren’t crazy about the optics.

Mandatory drug treatment.

If someone wants to use drugs, it is hard, if not impossible to protect them from themselves. Once a desperate drug user breaks the law, however- felony property theft, a violent crime- it is much easier.

Local legal systems which have given offenders the choice- rehab or jail- have seen a marked decrease in homelessness, crime and overdose deaths.

On the other hand, if you think sending someone to prison is a good way to dry them out, congratulations: Neither you nor anyone you know personally has ever been to prison, nor do you work in law enforcement.

Otherwise, you’d know there are more drugs in jail than out. Sending someone to jail, rather than mandating rehab is not an act of compassion or community. It isn’t progressive.

Neither is it very progressive to let someone suffering from an untreated drug addiction continue to be a criminal danger to themselves and to society at large. Someone suffering from an opioid or heroin addiction needs help; not a safe place to shoot up.

Eventually, their criminal acts will rise to the level of long-term incarceration, no matter how many times progressive DAs release them for a laundry list of lower-level offenses.

As accused mass-murderer and career criminal Daryll Brooks recently demonstrated, and many others have demonstrated before him, drug addiction and mental illness left untreated almost always ends eventually in tragedy, if only for the person and family directly impacted.

As U.S. politicians from both parties continue to ignore the growing number of overdose deaths, and crime continues to rise, waiting for the problem to spontaneously get better doesn’t seem like a viable strategy.

With the recent discovery of a new opioid 4x more powerful, and more deadly, than fentanyl in Washington, D.C., things may be looking even worse next year.

It is time for the nation to get serious about treating its drug overdose problem, before COVID-19 reveals how deep the rabbit hole of America’s drug crisis goes.

And well-meaning but misguided policies all the way down.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)