Overdose Deaths Are Higher Than Ever, and the GOP Is Exploiting the Crisis

As the projected number of fatal drug overdoses in 2021 breaks another devastating record, Republicans are threatening to undermine public health efforts and inflame the failed war on drugs if they win control of Congress.

Provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control released this week shows that an estimated 107,000 people died of a drug overdose in 2021, an increase of 15 percent over 2020. More than 1 million people have died of a drug overdose over the past two decades, and recent years have seen a significant increase in overdose deaths among Black and Native American people, a pattern that reflects the racist impacts of policing and deep disparities in health care, experts say.

There are myriad factors behind the overdose crisis, including racism in the medical system, pandemic isolation, and an illicit drug supply that has become increasingly toxic as police intensify their crack down on opioids and prescription drugs. However, Republicans are using the overdose crisis as an excuse to attack Democrats, immigrants, progressive reformers, and lifesaving harm reduction services in an effort to fill the media with tough-on-crime rhetoric ahead of the midterms.

“After 50 years of a failed war on drugs and well over a trillion dollars spent on the criminalization of people who use and sell drugs, and this is where it’s gotten us,” said Jules Netherland, the director of research and academic engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance, in an interview with Truthout.

The GOP’s approach is outlined in a memo to President Joe Biden released this week by the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a caucus of conservative lawmakers that bills itself as a “leading influencer on the Right.” The memo parrots the same “law and order” rhetoric deployed by former President Donald Trump and other Republicans since the 2016 presidential race and the uprisings for racial justice in 2020. It also accuses “the Left” of a “pro-criminal agenda” and pledges to expand the power of law enforcement while undermining reforms aimed at reducing mass incarceration and racist police violence.

Experts say the GOP’s plan to empower police — who vastly increase the risk of overdose through arrest and incarceration, and are almost never held accountable for harming people who use drugs — would make the overdose crisis much more deadly.

“Clearly, drug criminalization is a failed approach, and to see the GOP doubling down on something we know doesn’t work… it feels irresponsible and frankly tragic given the enormous loss of life,” Netherland said.

Released by Chairman Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, the RSC memo rehashes the same talking points about “crime,” drugs and immigration the GOP has hurled at Democrats for months now. For example, the memo conflates Biden and the Democrats with calls to “defund the police” and the Black Lives Matter movement. In reality, Biden and most Democrats support more funding for police.

The memo smears a handful of progressive prosecutors and milquetoast efforts to reduce mass incarceration as the “Left’s pro-criminal agenda.” (“Child porn” is mentioned no less than four times in the six-page memo, reflecting an apparent obsession among far right Republicans that is a nod to dangerous QAnon conspiracy theories, and is troubling in light of extremely homophobic GOP attacks on LGBTQ people and the multiple sexual abuse scandals swirling around their own party members.)

While the RSC memo leans into propaganda, it also provides a glimpse of the legislation that Republicans would pass if they take control of Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024. Republican are pushing to codify qualified immunity, which shields police from civil liability for violating constitutional rights on the job. Bipartisan debate over qualified immunity derailed a police reform bill that failed to pass after the police-perpetrated murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black people rocked the nation in 2020.

The RSC memo threatens to withhold federal funding from states where prosecutors decline to prosecute “certain charges,” or where public safety funding is allegedly “subsidizing” programs that promote the so-called “pro-criminal agenda.” Notably, the memo does not define “certain charges” or provide any examples of “pro-criminal” programs. Past statements with similar rhetoric suggests they may go after jurisdictions where simple drug possession is effectively decriminalized, as well as harm reduction services such as the overdose prevention centers where people can use drugs under medical supervision.

In an attempt to reduce mass incarceration and address systemic racism, a handful of reformist prosecutors in mainly liberal cities pledged not to prosecute some minor charges such as vagrancy, petty shoplifting and possession of small amounts of drugs. Some cities and, more recently, the Biden administration, are also investing in programs that provide services to people experiencing homelessness, poverty, drug addiction or mental illness, for example, rather than using tax dollars to arrest and lock people up. Multiple polls show that a clear majority of Americans support a public health approach to drugs and believe the drug war has failed.

Republicans have responded by using misinformation and racist dog whistles to attack harm reduction services such as syringe exchange programs and overdose prevention centers that have been shown to prevent overdose deaths and the spread of disease. Right-wing lawmakers have exploited misconceptions about harm reduction since the 1980s, when activists and public health workers began distributing clean syringes during the AIDS crisis. Pushback from conservatives and law enforcement has continued to thwart harm reduction efforts today.

Daliah Heller, vice president of drug use initiatives at Vital Strategies, a group that promotes harm reduction, said harm reduction services are available in “some locations and a majority of states,” but emergency investment at all levels of government is urgently needed to combat the overdose crisis.

“Far too few people have access to any of the five key interventions we know will reduce overdose deaths: naloxone, drug checking resources, medications for opioid use disorder, safer drug use supplies, and overdose prevention centers,” Heller said in a statement this week.

Two overdose prevention centers opened up in New York City last year and have already prevented dozens of overdoses. In 2019, the Trump administration blocked an overdose prevention center known as Safehouse planned for Philadelphia, and Republicans have pushed to shut down the facilities in New York. Safehouse announced this week that it expects an “eventual settlement” with Biden’s Justice Department, a signal that the Biden administration may reverse federal opposition to overdose prevention centers.

“It’s not time for more political rhetoric, it’s a time to take action,” Netherland said.

Heller, Netherland and a chorus of experts say drug decriminalization is also crucial for containing the overdose crisis. Arrest and incarceration of people living with addiction vastly increases the risk of fatal overdose, and the number of people dying of overdose inside jails and prisons skyrocketed by 600 percent from 2001 to 2018. Drug overdose is now the most common cause of death among people recently released from prisons, and the third leading cause of death within the nation’s local jails, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. Drug policing also reinforces stigma in the medical system and discourages providers from properly treating pain and addiction, particularly among Black and Brown patients.

Stigma and drug policing also deter people from seeking harm reduction and overdose prevention services — or even calling for help during a potentially fatal overdose. Despite “Good Samaritan” laws in most states that protect people from prosecution for reporting an overdose, a 2020 study found that more than one-third a police report making an arrest when responding to an overdose. Studies show that “Good Samaritan” laws save lives, but awareness of the laws vary widely among police and the public.

Now, Republicans are exploiting panic over fentanyl and its analogues, the potent opioids that are poisoning the illicit drug supply and fueling the crisis along with other substances such as stimulants and alcohol. The memo from House Republicans suggests lawmakers should consider stronger penalties for possession of fentanyl, including life in prison. The threat of a lifetime behind bars would undoubtedly deter some people from calling 911 in the event of an overdose. Several states have already toughened penalties for fentanyl, but the number of overdose deaths continues to rise.

“Relying on law enforcement and the criminal legal system can create real problems, because people are going to be reluctant to call for help in cases of an overdose, and frankly police aren’t trained to respond to problematic drug use,” Netherland said.

Faced with right-wing backlash, the president is tentatively embracing harm reduction while simultaneously doubling down on anti-trafficking efforts at the core of the drug war. While both Biden and Republicans are careful to say that they are targeting drug cartels rather than their “victims,” in real life, people living with addiction are also selling drugs to survive the socioeconomic conditions surrounding the overdose crisis.

“The prohibition and criminalization of fentanyl and its analogs have done nothing to curb the overdose problem — in fact, drug prohibition created this toxic drug supply,” Netherland said. “We know communities of color are overpoliced in this country, and this is where we see the highest rates of overdose deaths, and they are also the communities we have invested the least in terms of public health and social services.”