Nov 18, 2021 - Podcasts

Drug overdose deaths hit a new record

More than 100,000 people died of an overdose in the 12-month period ending in April of this year, according to CDC data.

  • Plus, the House issues a rare censure of a Republican lawmaker.
  • And, a debate in Washington over who authorizes military force.

Guests: Andrew Kolodny, medical director for opioid policy research at Brandeis University and Axios' Glen Johnson and Alayna Treene.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, Sabeena Singhani, Lydia McMullen-Laird, David Toledo and Jayk Cherry. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected] You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOOHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Thursday, November 18th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what we’re following today: The House issues a rare censure of a Republican lawmaker. Plus: a debate in Washington over who authorizes military force.

But first, today’s One Big Thing: a new record in drug overdose deaths.

More than 100,000 people died of an overdose in the 12 month period ending in April of this year, according to CDC data. Dr. Andrew Kolodny is here to help us understand why -- he is the medical director for opioid policy research at Brandeis University. Dr. Kolodny, thanks for being with us.

DR. KOLODNY: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: First, these numbers are for all overdoses. How much of this is about opioid overdoses specifically?

DR KOLODNY: Uh, the vast majority of these drug overdose deaths are opioid and in particular, they involve an illicitly synthesized opioid called fentanyl.

NIALA: Were you expecting the numbers to be so high at this point?

DR KOLODNY: Opioid overdose deaths have been skyrocketing for the past few years. And, and actually for more than 25 years, each year, we've been setting a record, for deaths from drug overdose and the next year we break that record. But the last few years have been the worst and I expected the numbers to continue to get worse, but not this bad.

NIALA: And how much did the pandemic exacerbate this?

DR KOLODNY: It's very difficult to say. But there are reasons to believe that COVID did make the problem worse. For many people with opioid addiction, which is a chronic condition, they're prone to relapses. And during times of psychosocial stress, when there's social isolation, that can make people more prone to a relapse. In the past, before the opioid supply was so dangerous, to have a slip or a relapse might not be life-threatening. But today with such a dangerous opioid supply, all it takes is one slip. There are also reasons to believe that COVID may have made it harder for people with opioid addiction to access treatment. And lastly, there are reasons to believe that COVID. May have led to an increase in fentanyl use in the Western half of the United States. So before COVID hit the fentanyl problem was mainly affecting the Eastern half of the United States where we mostly have powdered heroin. And in the Western half of the United States, where the heroin is more in a form called black tar heroin, where it's harder to mix fentanyl into black tar heroin, we were seeing far fewer fentanyl deaths. During COVID, possibly because there has been less border traffic, particularly from Mexico that may have favored the smuggling of the more potent fentanyl, and that may have led to the increase in fentanyl use. We did see the largest increase in fentanyl deaths over the past 12 months in states that had not previously had much of a fentanyl problem.

NIALA: Like where?

DR KOLODNY: California, Washington, Oregon. These are states where we really did see an even greater skyrocketing and deaths, since COVID.

NIALA: is there anything that's giving you hope about the future of this epidemic right now?

DR KOLODNY: Uh...not really. Much of what president Biden said he was going to do about the opioid crisis when he was running for president is exactly what we do need to do. Unfortunately, we really haven't seen enough action from the administration yet. What we really need right now would be a commitment for long-term funding for treatment expansion, or the creation of new funding streams, so that people who are opioid addicted can much more easily access effective treatment. And when I say effective treatment, I'm not talking about rehab beds or detox. I'm talking about long-term outpatient treatment, particularly with a medicine called buprenorphine. If we really want to see deaths come down in the short run, someone who's opioid addicted has to be able to access treatment more easily than they can buy a bag of heroin or fentanyl. And until we get there, I think we're going to see very high rates of overdose deaths.

NIALA: Dr. Andrew Kolodny is the medical director for opioid policy research at Brandeis University. Thank you for your time, Dr. Kolodny.

DR KOLODNY: Thank you for having me.

NIALA: We’re back in 15 seconds with the latest on vaccine booster shots.

Welcome back to Axios Today. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

For the first time in more than a decade -- the House of Representatives voted yesterday to censure Arizona Republican Paul Gosar after he tweeted an anime video depicting him killing democratic New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Axios political editor Glen Johnson has been following all this -- Glen, what’s your takeaway on all of this?

GLEN JOHNSON: To me what’s most interesting is this was an effort to hold him to account for what he did through this anime. But it descended into just this partisan recriminations. You had some pretty nasty speeches delivered by members of the Republican party. You had Democrats complain that it's unprecedented to have a member threatened another member this way. You had Republicans complain that it was unprecedented for a majority party to seek a center like this without going through a committee process. And then you also had the house minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, just blatantly threaten the Democrats saying we're going to retaliate as soon as we get empowered again. He said that in the future, all committee seats will be the subject of a majority vote in the house. And obviously if you have the majority, uh, the Republican party regains it, they could keep off any Democrat off of any committee that they want. So something that was designed to hold a member to account further divided the chamber.

NIALA: Axios’ Glen Johnson. Thank you, Glen.

GLEN: You're welcome.

NIALA: Here’s another politics story you may have missed this week. For the first time in half a century, Congress is making moves to repeal the president's authorization to use military force. Axios’ congressional reporter Alayna Treene has been watching this debate unfold.

Alayna, what do we need to know about this?

ALAYNA TREENE: It's really kicking off a broader debate over how to restore Congress's role in authorizing future wars. Now the authorization that's looking at being repealed is the 2002 authorization for Iraq. Those in support of this repeal argue that Iraq's now an ally, not an enemy and the war is long over. And so there's no reason for their president to still have this authorization. And it was also used, i mean, as recently as January, 2020 in the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani who was killed in a drone strike in Baghdad during the Trump administration. And you know, I mean, I think the real reason why this matters is some of these authorizations have really proved over the past you know couple decades to give presidents military flexibility. And that's where critics who don't want it to be repealed think that, president should still have these powers and still be able to have that flexibility. Now the bigger fight will come when they debate the 2001 AUMF, which allowed George W. Bush to go to war after September 11th. That one's going to be much harder and much more controversial because it's far more broad and it also not only needs to be repealed, but replaced. And that's a fight I think that we won't see for some time now they’re focusing on the 2002 repeal first.

Alayna Treene is Axios’ congressional reporter and the co-author of the weekly Axios Sneak Peek newsletter.

NIALA: One last thing before we go today:

The iconic New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square is back! After a virtual event last year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced earlier this week that fully vaccinated visitors are welcome to join the festivities.

In other holiday news, I’m even more excited about the new Baby Yoda balloon that’s set to make its debut next week in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

That’s it for us today!

Before we go: if you’re a fan of the podcast and listen on Apple, it would be great if you could leave us a starred review. That makes it easier for other people to find us.

You’re always welcome to send us your feedback by emailing us as well. That address is [email protected]. I’m on Twitter, and of course, you can always text me. That info is in our show notes.

I’m Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening, stay safe, and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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