The Overdose Crisis in the DMV
By Jarod A. Forget, Special Agent in Charge, DEA Washington Division
This past year, we as a nation have been unwaveringly focused on the global pandemic, and understandably so. In the background of all of this coverage, however, another epidemic has been building. An epidemic that has been responsible for an unprecedented number of deaths across D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.
An overdose epidemic.
These two issues – COVID-19 and the corresponding drug overdoses increases we are seeing – are very much connected.
Throughout the past year, the global pandemic has us dealing with severe levels of social isolation, personal and familial stress, school closures, job losses, instability, health issues, fear – it’s no wonder so many turn to unhealthy coping strategies like drugs.
These stressors, along with the massive communal instability we have all been feeling during the pandemic, have added fuel to the problem and caused a serious overdose issue in this area.
It is no secret that this past year has left our families, neighborhoods, and communities vulnerable. People have been seeking out anything to numb their pain. So many people in our area get hooked on opioids such as fentanyl, oxycodone, morphine, and heroin. Even methamphetamine use has increased. We’re seeing violent criminals taking advantage of this situation and flooding our streets with deadly drugs.
This MUST be stopped.
As overdose numbers increased throughout 2020, we have been working hard, along with our partners, to do something about it. This year, in 2021, we are greatly increasing efforts and resources across D.C., Maryland, and Virginia (the DMV), to combat this overdose crisis and try to reverse the trend.
This epidemic is worsening during the Coronavirus crisis for obvious reasons. But what are we doing to stop the cycle?
Let’s talk about it.
Data on the Crisis
While over 50% of Americans have reported feeling anxious or depressed as a result of the pandemic, our state crisis hotlines are receiving a startling increase in calls.
Opioid use and drug-related deaths have both jumped dramatically during the pandemic. The CDC recorded over 81,200 drug deaths in the 12 months through May 2020--a record amount. As we bring this view closer to home, the numbers appear worse.
The DMV area has been particularly hard hit by this wave of overdose deaths we are seeing around the country.
Maryland state health officials report that 2,025 people died by overdose between January and September 2020, with at least 1,829 of those fatalities linked to opioids, a 14.5% jump from prior year. The deadliest of all--fentanyl--a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, factored into 93.1% of opioid-related deaths in Maryland.
In Virginia, 2020 was the worst year, by far, for fatal overdoses. Virginia state health officials report that 2,242 people died by overdose between January and September, a 66.1% increase from the same period in 2019. 1,883 of those fatalities were linked to opioids, most being fentanyl-related deaths. This is an astounding problem for our area.
As you can see, synthetic opioids (primarily illicitly manufactured fentanyl) appear to be the primary driver of this new overdose crisis, increasing around 100% from last year in both states. Overdose deaths involving methamphetamine have also been increasing, likely linked to violent drug traffickers using a deadly mixture of fentanyl to make more profits from sales of drugs like meth, heroin, and cocaine in our area.
The DEA Washington Division has been targeting our efforts to take on this issue.
Let’s talk about how.
What the Experts Recommend
In recent years, as we have collectively worked to reduce the overdose rates here in the U.S., we have learned much. We now have a set of commonsense practices that experts agree help reverse climbing overdose rates and we have worked quickly to implement these in our communities.
So what are these best practices? And how are we taking these steps to combat this crisis?
One crucial step is helping people obtain medications effective in preventing overdose and treating addiction–something we’ve seen quickly come to pass in the past few months. Drugs like Naloxone help save lives and we have been working with our partners across the DMV to help promote and provide more free Naloxone and training to anyone interested. The widespread availability and use of this drug has and will help save lives.
Moreover, we’ve been working to empower our providers and registrants with information and best practices to assist them in their work helping people to stop using dangerous opioids like street heroin without suffering crippling withdrawal symptoms.
The next most crucial step is expanding our efforts with a more comprehensive approach to tackling the cycle of addiction generated by the link between drug trafficking and illicit drug use in our cities. This is something we’ve been working on changing throughout the area for the past few years, but this year, in particular, we will be vastly expanding those efforts across the DMV.
Finally, a main driver of the current overdose crisis is fentanyl--a powerful and very deadly synthetic opioid that has flooded the drug supply in recent years. In response, we are building Task Forces and partnerships across D.C., Maryland, and Virginia to fight this problem where it is, and where it is coming from. Combatting the fentanyl issue at its root--its supply--is both effective for reducing drug crime in our communities as well as vastly reducing overdoses.
This current crisis of overdose deaths highlights the need for the DEA’s work in this area. Particularly in targeting the safety and protection of our community members most at risk of overdose, and furthering partnerships and expansion in prevention and outreach activities.
Federal and local agencies, including the CDC and state governments, have issued health advisories recommending these actions. Resultantly, the DEA Washington Division is prioritizing these actions this year, to combat the overdose crisis.
What DEA Washington Is Doing About It
Measures taken at the national, state, and local level to address the COVID-19 pandemic may have unintended consequences for substance use and overdose, but the DEA Washington Division is working with the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, and our city and county leaders across the area to continue drug overdose prevention efforts.
This includes a lot of behind-the-scenes work, such as working with local experts and organizations to share drug trends, assessing overdose rates, identifying and implementing comprehensive strategies to target the problem, building up joint task forces to target the issue, and informing more effective prevention efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We are committed to preventing opioid and other drug misuse, overdoses, and deaths in our area. The DEA Washington Division will be working throughout the year to do just this, through five key strategies:
- Conduct Outreach and Research: Using our area partnerships to share, discuss, and combat emerging trends and further direct prevention activities across our area.
- Build State, Local, and Partner Capacity: Working with our area partners to target this issue through task force capacity building, training offerings, funding, and other collaborative working structures to better respond to the epidemic.
- Support Providers and Other Registrants: Working directly with our area providers, pharmacists, and health companies, and other DEA registrants to offer information, training, and support to help patients, reduce unsafe opioid exposure, and avoid addiction issues in our area.
- Partner with Public Safety: Coordinating with public safety and community-based partners to rapidly identify drug overdose cases, threats, trends, and reduce community and individual harm associated with illicit opioids and fentanyl use in our area.
- Empower our Community Members: Increasing public awareness and about the risks of opioids and substance use disorders by working with adults, youth, schools, businesses, not-for-profits, media, and other government agencies to spread the message.
What You Can Do About It
Not all overdoses have to end in death. Everyone has a role to play.
You can make a huge difference in your community by learning what you can, staying informed about the issues in our area, and speaking to your family and friends openly about the topic.
Want to know where to start? Here are some great ways you can help keep your family, friends, and community safer:
- Learn about the risks of opioids
- Learn about naloxone, its availability, and how to use it
- Know who to call to help anyone struggling with opioid use disorder
- Learn more about our outreach and prevention efforts in your community
- Learn more about what may help if you or someone you care about is increasing drug use during the COVID-19 pandemic
The DEA Washington Division not only goes after the heinously violent drug trafficking organizations bringing these deadly drugs into our neighborhoods, but we are working hard, in collaboration with our area partners, to help and support our community members dealing with this evolving overdose crisis.
Our priority is to do everything we can to equip our families, friends and neighbors with the knowledge and ability to keep their families safe.
With record numbers of Americans dying from both COVID-19 and overdoses, action is desperately needed.
This is a top priority of our Division, to help tackle this overdose crisis, using comprehensive community-based strategies, and commonsense measures proven to work.
Our families’ lives are on the line.