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December 16, 2022

With a divided Congress, we must remain united in combating the opioid epidemic

Credit: The Hill

With the last of the midterm races decided and a divided 118th Congress beginning next year, our commitment to combating the opioid epidemic must overcome political partisanship. As over 1 million Americans have died in the last 20 years from drug overdoses, solving the opioid epidemic deserves a whole-hearted, bipartisan effort. For the millions of Americans in recovery, the millions of loved ones who have lost someone to an overdose, and the millions still suffering from this disease – we must work together to save lives, no matter what.

The opioid epidemic is only growing worse. Both the number of people suffering from opioid use disorder and the number of fatal opioid overdoses hit record highs in the United States during the pandemic. In 2021, 80,926 people died of overdoses involving opioids, roughly equivalent to one 737 jet going down every day with no survivors. This worsening crisis impacts communities across the country: urban, suburban, and rural; neighborhoods on the coasts and in the heartland; and red, blue, and purple America. It affects all races and ethnicities and the Black community is now disproportionately impacted.

Without question, the greatest cost of this epidemic is measured in the human toll it takes on those struggling with opioids and their families. But the costs do not end there. This health care crisis makes our country sicker, threatens our national security and strategic readiness, and imposes growing costs on our nation.

A recent report from the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, of which we are both members, estimates that the opioid crisis cost our economy nearly $1.5 trillion in 2020 alone. That is over $400 billion more than it did in 2017, when the CDC last estimated the economic toll of this epidemic. In addition to the very personal impact on families, our entire economy bears these costs through higher health care spending, lower productivity, increased crime, and the value of the lives impacted by addiction or lost to overdoses.

As the opioid crisis worsened and the economic toll kept rising, opioid company profits hit new highs. The Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma, raked in an estimated $12 to 13 billion in profits selling OxyContin. While the Sacklers will now pay $6 billion to settle lawsuits filed by attorneys general from states like ours that were hit hardest by the epidemic, these settlements pale in comparison to their company’s profits and the estimated $1.5 trillion annual cost our society now bears.

Today, the rise of synthetic opioids like fentanyl has changed the nature of the epidemic, making it even more deadly and more costly. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and the Drug Enforcement Administration found that 42 percent of street pills tested for fentanyl contained a potentially fatal dose. The CDC estimates that synthetic opioids are the “primary driver of the increase in overdose deaths.” Even worse, fentanyl is increasingly being mixed into counterfeit versions of prescription medications such as Adderall, Xanax, and Valium.

We cannot solve this crisis by simply cracking down on supply and punishing those struggling with addiction. Decades of the ineffective War on Drugs underscore the fruitlessness of relying solely on this approach, and the high toxicity of fentanyl makes solving this epidemic through seizures alone particularly impossible. Because the drug is so potent, less than five tons—an amount that would fit in the beds of two pickup trucks—is all that is needed to meet current U.S. demand each year. Even the most sophisticated and well-resourced enforcement agencies would not have the capacity to identify and stop the trafficking of such a quantity of this powerful narcotic.

Instead, our efforts should focus on curbing demand for these drugs. Harm reduction efforts— like providing overdose reversal drugs, testing strips that let people test substances for the presence of fentanyl, or syringe services programs that prevent the spread of disease—can save lives and should be more widely available.

The Biden administration is guiding policy in this direction to address the immediate and long-term damage. To start, the president has called for a whole of government approach to beating the overdose epidemic and has emphasized harm reduction. The White House recently announced it was awarding $1.5 billion to states and territories to address the epidemic, which is in addition to the nearly $5.5 billion dollars it committed in 2021 to fund treatment programs across states and territories.

The economic toll of the opioid epidemic is rising, and failure to adequately invest in public health interventions has already proven disastrous. Across levels of government — and across the aisle — we must focus on saving lives and treating opioid addiction like the disease it is. Through coordinated efforts to curb demand — by funding prevention, treatment, and recovery support services — Congress has the power to reduce the society- and economy-wide harms.

Through the stories of loss and hardship we hear from our communities, and the names of Americans attached to these increasingly grave figures, it’s clear that the responsibility to act rests squarely on the shoulders of our nation’s leaders.

Next Congress, we must continue to put partisanship aside and unite to combat this crisis.

No matter what.

Don Beyer represents Virginia’s 8th District and is the chairman of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee (JEC). David Trone represents Maryland’s 6th District and is a co-founder and co-chair of the Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force and serves on the JEC.