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For the first time, drug overdose deaths have surpassed 100,000 in a 12-month period

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

To the U.S. now, where it has been a devastating year for drug overdoses. Today marks the first time more than 100,000 people have died from overdoses in a 12-month period. Experts say that increase is driven by the pandemic and by the huge quantities of toxic fentanyl and methamphetamines that are being smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border. NPR's addiction correspondent Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: As these heartbreaking numbers were being released this morning, Dr. Rahul Gupta spoke to reporters on a conference call, describing the surge of overdose deaths - up 28% in a single year - as unprecedented. Gupta heads the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE CALL)

RAHUL GUPTA: This translates to an American perishing from a drug overdose death every five minutes. This is unacceptable, and it requires an unprecedented response.

MANN: The rapid rise of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. began in the early months of the pandemic. Public health experts say it's driven in part by disruption of drug treatment and health care programs. But a bigger factor appears to be the spread of powerful, toxic street drugs - fentanyl and methamphetamines.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE CALL)

ANNE MILGRAM: The amount of illegal fentanyl in our country has risen to an unprecedented level.

MANN: Anne Milgram heads the Drug Enforcement Administration, the agency charged with keeping illegal drugs off the streets. She said, today these high-risk drugs are easier to find than ever before.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE CALL)

MILGRAM: This year alone, DEA has seized enough fentanyl to provide every member of the United States population with a lethal dose.

MANN: Mexican drug cartels have shifted much of their criminal activity to these synthetic drugs, which are cheaper to manufacture and easier to smuggle. Xavier Becerra, head of the Health and Human Services Department, said with the U.S. street drug supply so toxic, it's time to focus on harm reduction strategies designed to keep people with addiction alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE CALL)

XAVIER BECERRA: It's time to follow the science and the data about what works - to listen to those struggling with addiction and to get them the help they need.

MANN: The Biden administration has embraced some strategies once seen as controversial, including making clean needles more widely available to drug users - also, test strips that help users identify drugs laced with fentanyl. Today, the White House also called on state governments to cut red tape that prevents distribution of naloxone. That's a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses. Again, Dr. Gupta.

(SOUNBITE OF CANFERENCE CALL)

GUPTA: No one should die of an overdose simply because they didn't have access to naloxone. But sadly, today, that is happening across the country.

MANN: But while embracing some harm reduction measures, the Biden administration has drawn criticism for failing to support other public health strategies widely seen as effective. Today, Gupta said the White House won't take a position on safe drug use sites proposed in a half-dozen cities where people with addiction could use drugs under medical supervision. Gupta said that issue is being handled by the courts.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE CALL)

GUPTA: We cannot address this specifically around overdose prevention sites primarily because of ongoing litigation.

MANN: From the beginning, the Biden administration has faced criticism it's not moving fast enough to respond to the overdose crisis. Dr. Utsha Khatri, an emergency room physician and addiction researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, said today officials are still playing catch-up and should embrace all treatment strategies that might keep people alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE CALL)

UTSHA KHATRI: I just wonder how many more people - what the next milestone has to be to actually shift policy. We take care of patients every day. We tell family members every day that their loved one died of an overdose. I just don't know what else we're waiting for.

MANN: The Biden administration has also asked Congress for more than $10 billion to fund drug treatment and research programs. Brian Mann, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MULTA NOX'S "A PEARL ON THE BACK OF THE LID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.