The pandemic has increased substance abuse in America

By Michael Leach

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased substance abuse in America. As many feared, the virus was the last thing we needed, and it is no coincidence overdose rates are at an all-time high in America.

Substance abuse is an issue of magnitude in the United States. A drug epidemic that started with Oxycontin is now a part of our country’s fabric, raging for over 20 years now. And though it may have taken too long, we finally began to make progress in reversing a trend of overdose deaths that had shortened the average U.S. life expectancy. Rates began to drop and continued to do so for concurrent years, marking a substantial victory in just one of many battles that comprise the larger war.

But right when we thought we’d turned the tide, rates began to climb again. And then, the pandemic hit, and the last thing on anyone’s mind was addiction. But those who work in the substance abuse treatment industry and the field of addiction knew one thing when we saw the news about COVID-19; things weren’t about to get any better.

According to the CDC, over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in 12 months. Synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl) appear to be the main reason for the increase in overdose deaths. Thirty-seven of the 38 U.S. jurisdictions with available synthetic opioid data reported increases in synthetic opioid-involved overdose deaths.

America’s drug epidemic has taken a toll. It began in the early 2000s when prescription opioids, particularly Oxycontin, were overprescribed. The drug’s manufacturer, Purdue Pharmaceutical, took on an aggressive marketing approach that used false claims about the drug’s safety to get doctors to push the medication. These claims included that Oxycontin wasn’t addictive when used correctly and was safer than other opioids. This was far from the truth. Many people were now addicted to potent opioids.

Since then, Oxycontin has been heavily regulated, and the formula changed to make it abuse-resistant. But the damage was done, and those people who became addicted to opioids just found a new source for the drug, heroin.

Heroin is not only stronger than Oxycontin, but it’s far cheaper. Once people became addicted, all that restricting the drug did was force people onto illicit opioids. Those who could profit from this new pool of addicts did so by flooding the market with opioids. And some of the cheapest and strongest ones are synthetic.

Synthetic drugs are made in labs, usually overseas, and smuggled into America. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that has become one of the biggest killers in America. It is many times stronger than heroin and is causing an overdose epidemic as we speak.

The pandemic causes stress. Many people have become unemployed and have fallen on hard times. Many of us have been isolated from friends and family and don’t leave our houses much. And then there’s the worry. Will we get the virus? Will our parents? Even worse, will we be the ones to give it to them?

All of these things can make it difficult for someone in recovery to stay clean. It can make it difficult for someone in active addiction to curb their consumption or consider treatment. And it can make it hard for those in treatment to continue their pursuit of recovery.

But it has also been difficult for many people who previously didn’t have struggles with substance abuse and now find themselves looking for drug and alcohol treatment services. And even the landscape of these treatment services has changed, and the pandemic hasn’t made them any more accessible to people.

The COVID-19 pandemic was the last thing we needed. But we can’t forget about the epidemic that was here first.

Michael Leach has spent the majority of his career as a health care professional in the field of substance abuse and addiction recovery. He is a medical reviewer for the health care website and a certified clinical medical assistant.

Power to Speak is The Argonaut’s guest opinion column for community members to voice their views on local matters and does not represent an editorial position or endorsement by The Argonaut. The opinions, experiences, research and data analysis expressed in this article are the author’s own. Have a unique point of view on a neighborhood matter or a national issue with a local twist? Email