Congressional Support Lapses in the Fight Against Fentanyl 

Health and Gender Policy Brief #166 | By: Geoffrey Small | October 30, 2023

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Policy Summary:

In February, the CDC released data indicating that drug overdose deaths hit a record high in 2022. Eight states reported increased death rates from nine percent to twenty one percent last year. The access to social supports and healthcare has steadily increased since the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many believed that the data in 2022 would reflect a decrease in overdose deaths. However, one major driver of the reported increase undermined these expectations. The introduction of fentanyl in the United Sates is fueling the new wave of drug overdoses. This analysis will highlight the efforts that the federal government is undertaking to fight the burgeoning fentanyl crisis.

Policy Analysis:

The CDC reported that more than two thirds, or 68 percent, of overdose deaths were linked primarily to fentanyl in 2022. Many scholars believe this sharp rise to be the fourth wave in the historic drug overdose crisis. It started in the 90s to early 2000s with prescription opioids, a second wave involved increase heroin overdoses, and a third wave involved the introduction of fentanyl.

The FDA has recently taken measures to address the sharp increase in drug overdose deaths. In March 2023, the agency approved the first over-the-counter Naloxone nasal spray, stating the drug “is a lifesaving emergency treatment that reverses opioid overdose. It is a medicine with no abuse potential, and it is not a controlled substance.” These institutional beliefs mark a major change in the federal government’s perspective on opioid reversal drugs. During the second and third waves of overdose deaths, much of the public experienced a lack of access to this drug, due to state and federal regulations. For years, Naloxone was considered by federal and state governments as a drug that would enable more substance abuse. Most states only allowed police officers and paramedics to legally carry the nasal spray, which can immediately reverse a life-threatening overdose.

Congressional action has also had a complicated history with combating this overdose crisis. In 2018, the SUPPORT act was passed authorizing $20 billion for substance abuse prevention, treatment, and recovery. A reauthorization of the bill was introduced in July of this year. Unfortunately, Congress has not had the urgency to pass the new proposed law, allowing the 2018 SUPPORT act to eventually lapse on September 30th. As a result, funding is currently no longer available to families who desperately need help fighting the fourth wave of this devastating drug overdose crisis.

Without Congressional support, the fourth wave in the drug overdose crisis has many experts speculating that deaths will continue to reach record highs in the United States. The FDA’s recent approval of over-the-counter Naloxone marks a positive change in public access to treatment options. The stigma of the overdose-reversal nasal spray as an enabler for substance abuse, which prevented the public access to the vital lifesaving drug, is no longer an obstacle. Harm Reduction Therapeutics donated 200,000 doses of the nasal spray to the Remedy Alliance, a non-profit Naloxone advocacy organization, after FDA approval. This may help blunt the continued rise in deaths related to a burgeoning fentanyl crisis. However, Congress is currently preventing vital funding for prevention and recovery by allowing the SUPPORT act to lapse without the necessary reauthorization. Please contact your congressional representatives to highlight the need for SUPPORT act reauthorization. Also, consider donating to the Remedy Alliance to ensure they connect with harm reduction programs to provide free Naloxone for people in need.

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