The Unhurried Devastation from our National Drug Problem

Denver, Colorado.
Denver, Colorado.

What if, in a flash, the entire population of Denver was vaporized? Gone in an instant. What if it was Seattle, Washington, D.C. or Boston instead? The entire country would be electrified. The military would be called up. Vast resources would be mobilized to fight the enemy that stole 700,000 of our citizens in a heartbeat. The pain and struggle to fight this enemy would be felt in the hearts of every American.

But what if these lives were quietly siphoned away over an 18-year-period? The total number lost would be the same. But the impact would arrive like a movie played in ultra-slow-motion mode. SO slow motion, in fact, that it would be hard to perceive the broad outlines of the event.

Boston, Massachusetts
Boston, Massachusetts.

The end results of these two events—the instantaneous one and the lingering one—are the same: the loss of nearly three-quarters of a million lives. What does that number represent?

That’s the actual number of loved ones and neighbors America has lost to drug overdoses between 1999 and 2017. It’s hard to believe. It’s only because it’s been so slow that most of us have not noticed.

Now, Let’s Look Into the Future

In late 2017, the medical reporting website worked with the current figures of drug overdoses and estimated our future losses. If nothing changed, they said, we stand to lose another half million people over the next decade. That would mean between 1999 and 2027, well over a million Americans would be lost to this one cause of death.

“Surely not!” you might say. “Surely the state and federal governments will step in and address this problem.

Well, yes, they are taking action. And, in fact, for the first time in many years, the number of deaths due to drug overdoses is starting to decline a little bit. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that number tipped over into a decrease in November, 2017. Let’s take a closer look at what that means.

The CDC maintains a monthly running total of overdose deaths reported and their estimates of what that total will be when all autopsies and toxicology reports have been completed and filed. According to their numbers:

  • The total number lost in 2015 was 52,623.
  • The total for 2016 was 63,938.

Now, to check out that tipping point in November, let’s look at the figures for the last several months of the year. Because figures for these months have not been fully compiled, we will use their estimates instead of reported deaths.

  • September total for the prior 12 months: 73,157
  • October: 73,057
  • November: 72,828
  • December: 72,287
  • January 2018: 71,568

While there is a slight improvement, it’s way too early to celebrate. If we continue to see improvement in this number AND if improvements accelerate, then maybe we will never see these 1.2 million people felled by drugs that right now, it looks like we’re destined to lose.

What About the Costs?

According to a White House report from November 2017, our losses from opioid overdoses alone are costing the country, states, communities and businesses an estimated $431 billion per year. And those are just the costs from this one class of drug that includes heroin, prescription pain relievers and illicitly-manufactured fentanyl.

About two-thirds of all drug overdose deaths are attributable to opioids. So what would our total costs from all drug overdoses be? Let’s increase that $431 billion by one-third, meaning that all drug overdoses could be costing us around $573 billion.

If we’re going to look at the costs resulting from problematic use of drugs, we should include the cost of excessive alcohol consumption as well.

A bartender hands out more drinks.

The CDC provides an estimate of costs due to excessive alcohol use. In 2010, they estimated the cost at $249 billion. That number refers to the cost that governments, businesses, and individuals have to pay to clean up the problems created by excessive alcohol use. Those problems include traffic accidents, arrests, medical costs, care for children of those addicted to alcohol that then lose custody, and lost productivity.

Add the $573 billion to $249 billion for excessive alcohol consumption and we’re looking at $822 billion in costs every year.

What this does not include is the cost of non-fatal abuse of drugs like heroin, marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy, LSD and other drugs. That would push the total even higher, perhaps close to a trillion dollars. And remember, this is a repeating cost—we pay it every year through our tax payments or the reduced profitability of our businesses.

You Can Help Stop this Devastation

Yes, you can help stop it. Here’s some ideas:

A soccer team for young boys.
  • Support legislators in your area who obtain funding for anti-drug activities in your community
  • Encourage your community to have plenty of healthy afternoon and weekend activities and sports for youth
  • Talk to your children’s schools and ensure they offer proven, effective drug prevention programs for every student, every year
  • Set a good example of sobriety including avoidance of any unnecessary medications, moderate (or no) alcohol use, and no illicit drug use of any kind by you or allowed in or around the home
  • Monitor your children’s television and movie exposure to ensure they are not receiving pro-drug or pro-alcohol messages in their entertainment
  • Know where your kids are going and who they are going to be with when they are away from home
  • Find out if any of your children’s friend’s homes tolerate the use of marijuana or excessive alcohol in front of children or BY their own or visiting children (you’ll just have to ask them)
  • Be explicitly clear that you are opposed to any underage alcohol use, any illicit drug use at all and any misuse of prescription drugs
  • Never give your children any drug not specifically prescribed for their current condition
  • Keep all medications locked up when they are not actually being used, so you can keep them out of the hands not only of your children but also visitors to the home
  • Find opportunities to talk honestly with your children about the danger and destructiveness of drugs and excessive alcohol use
  • Make it safe for your children to tell you about kids they have seen who have been drunk or used drugs and use these moments to teach your kids about good choices
  • Support other actions that can save lives such as community training sessions on saving the life of a person who overdoses, funding for first responders and readily-available supplies of the opioid antidote naloxone (Narcan)

Some parents monitor their children’s text messages, instant messages, call histories and online search histories to ensure the safety of their children. Other parents choose to drug test their children from time to time. While this may seem to some parents like an invasion of their children’s privacy, other parents point out that it gives their kids a perfect excuse to turn down drugs they may be offered by their peers. Sometimes it’s hard to say “No” without that good excuse.

Start with protecting your own children and family and move on to getting involved in your community. You can make a difference. You can be the person who helps bring these human losses and costs down.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.