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Overdose deaths surging amid the COVID-19 pandemic: CDC

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Jim Carroll, Students Against Destructive Decisions Senior Advisor, joins Yahoo Finance’s Adriana Belmonte, Kristin Myers and Alexis Christoforous to discuss surge in overdose deaths amid the pandemic and drug prevention.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: Tragically, overdose deaths have soared during the pandemic. As much as 87,000 people have lost their lives to drug overdoses. Let's chat more about that. We've got Jim Carroll, senior advisor to Students Against Destructive Decisions, joining us today, along with Yahoo Finance's reporter, Adriana Belmonte. Adriana, of course, has been doing a lot of reporting on the opioid crisis. So we're great-- we're very lucky to have you here with us as well. Jim, I'm going to start with you. These overdose deaths, how much did this put us back in terms of our fight against addiction?

JIM CARROLL: It's really sad. We really think the majority of these deaths are due to the pandemic. And obviously, we needed to help people during COVID and make sure that people were isolating and being careful. But what it also did was it meant that people who were especially new in recovery and need that peer-to-peer relationship were cut off. And it also meant that in schools, a lot of the prevention efforts were cut off. So we really now need to double down. Thankfully, the pandemic hopefully is coming to an end. And we can focus on the mission of SAD, of teaching prevention, but also allowing people who are in recovery, who are susceptible to this disease-- and that's a lifetime battle-- are able to connect to the people that they need to the most.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Yeah, I want to talk more about how the pandemic has really exacerbated this story, Jim, because we had a lot of treatment centers closed. A lot of resources that would normally be there for folks have not been. Did you see the numbers, like, early on in the pandemic last year? And are they at least starting to lessen? Or have those numbers sort of been consistent throughout the past year?

JIM CARROLL: You know, when I was the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, two years ago, we announced for the first time a reduction in the number of overdose deaths in 30 years. And what we saw starting almost immediately with the pandemic as those isolations started taking place, you mentioned the treatment centers were closing, schools were closing, was they started to spike.

And the data released recently showing 87,000, 88,000 overdoses are sort of the current estimates and current-- where we think we're going. I really think it's going to be even worse. And I think we're going to see close to 100,000 deaths for the last 12-month period as we sort of get final data. And that's how we need to think about it in terms of 100,000 people a year have died from overdoses. That's why we need to teach prevention. We need to get help for those who need it. And we need to stop the drugs coming into our country.

ADRIANA BELMONTE: So you emphasize a lot about prevention. While you were drug czar, obviously, you had a big hand in the drug policies. Under this current administration, we have an acting director right now. But once a permanent one is put in place, what kind of policies do you hope are set in place as part of these prevention tactics?

JIM CARROLL: You know, and I think the office is continuing to do great work. And the acting director there is really doing a great job in leading the fight. And so my hat's off to acting director Labelle for continuing these policies. We were spending the most amount of money, about $100 million a year, just on prevention. The American Rescue Plan that President Biden signed recently has more money there going towards that. And so we need to keep going in that direction, keep spending money on prevention.

The money shows, right? This is Yahoo Finance. We talk about the return on investment. And we really can't even do that with human life. But what we do know is that for every dollar spent on prevention, it's about a $15 to $17 savings on the treatment cost if someone becomes addicted, and obviously, God forbid, if someone loses their life, there's no dollar amount. But even from a financial perspective, this is money well spent. And it's also, of course, saving lives. And that's why SADD exists. And that's why I'm proud to partner with them.

ADRIANA BELMONTE: So I have to ask while you're here, there's more and more states that have been legalizing marijuana. I'm curious for your take on this because I've been seeing mixed reactions all over. Some people think it's a step in the right direction. Others think that this could-- this won't bode well for the future. I'd love to hear your take on it.

JIM CARROLL: Yeah, I hate not to answer, but you're exactly right. They're sort of mixed results. And I agree with what you're saying. What we have seen in states where it's been legalized have very mixed results. Some states have not been effective in controlling the black market, which means that kids are hearing different messages. They're hearing it's legalized. And so they think, well, what's the difference? If I can do it when I'm over the age of 21, why can't I do it at a younger age?

And so, we really have to teach prevention. We really have to make sure that we're keeping it out of the hands of kids. And all we have to do is think back about the surgeon general's advisories, saying from a medical perspective, marijuana negatively impacts and permanently alters a developing brain. And so we have to make sure we're teaching prevention of marijuana. The money that is made, the revenues needs to go back into prevention. And we also need to, of course, talk about the dangers of fentanyl.

KRISTIN MYERS: So, Jim, in terms of that prevention, but also even dealing with that addiction, we've seen folks get very innovative, get very creative during this pandemic. I'm curious to know if there was lessons learned over the last year that perhaps could be utilized moving forward, if perhaps virtual meetings, for example, might be able to reach a broader base of people that might be struggling.

JIM CARROLL: Yeah, I mean, just like what we're doing today and communicating through the phones and through our laptops, virtual meetings are important. We relax the restrictions on that to allow the telehealth meetings to take place and for everyone to still get reimbursed, as they would for any other medical service. We did that early on. We increased the amount of take-home medication and greatly expanded the availability of it, the take-home medication that is so critical for people to maintain their sobriety and not relapse and go back. And so that's why it's so critical that we do this.

We have to think about all these game changers. We really need naloxone, Narcan more widely available. We started thinking about fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction with 100,000 people or 80,000 people dying a year. This is what we need to continue to do. This is how we need to think about this issue. And I really look forward to continuing to work on here and stay the fight.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: And Jim, are you seeing that this current crisis with overdosing is affecting Black Americans disproportionately from whites? It was sort of -- it was the other way around just about a year or so ago.

JIM CARROLL: Yeah, what we're really seeing is an increase in urban areas of deaths because of fentanyl. Fentanyl is so lethal. It is so much more deadly, 10 times more deadly than other drugs in terms of the ability to kill someone. Just a few grains of salt, and it can kill someone. And we're seeing the use go up in urban areas. And we're seeing a real spike there. That's why we started targeting them. I know we're going to continue the fight in these cities to teach prevention, to get treatment, but also we've got to stop the flow of fentanyl into our country.

None of it is made really here in the United States. It's all coming from outside the United States. And so, like I said, if we thought about this as a weapon of mass destruction, if we thought about 9/11 happening every 10 days or so with the number of deaths, that's where we need to sort of start thinking of, what would you do? And what would you do if this is your child? So many kids are dying, so many of our loved ones, our neighbors. We have to start thinking, you know, we're not immune from this. This is affecting all of us.

KRISTIN MYERS: Absolutely. It's a crisis that is hitting this entire country. Jim Carroll, senior advisor to Students Against Destructive Decisions, Yahoo Finance's Adriana Belmonte, thank you both for joining us today.