Like much else in the United States at the moment, the sheer scale of the problem is breathtaking. Every day, 115 Americans die after overdosing on opioids, a class of drugs that includes prescription painkillers, heroin and potent synthetics like fentanyl. That’s more than 42,000 deaths a year, more than result from motor vehicle deaths or gun violence or suicides. In fact, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under fifty, and are responsible for the shocking decline in life expectancy in the United States.
Much of the responsibility for the fivefold increase in deaths since 1999 lies with illegally manufactured synthetics. In 2016, drugs like fentanyl were linked to more than 19,400 fatal overdoses, traditional opioid prescription painkillers like oxycodone accounted for about 14,400, and heroin for just over 15,400. (These deaths total more than 42,200 because more than one type of opioid is involved in some cases.)
The problem has become too big even for the White House to ignore. Donald Trump has claimed several times that his administration is taking serious action. Last October, he declared a ninety-day public health emergency and promised to “liberate” Americans from the scourge of addiction. By the time the declaration ran out in January, it had done little more than draw attention to the crisis.
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