The NCSL Blog


By Kate Blackman and Karmen Hanson

Drug overdose death rates continued to rise in 2015, according to new data released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

pile of pillsMore than 52,000 Americans died from a drug overdose in 2015—and 63 percent of those deaths involved an opioid.

The new report includes state trends in opioid deaths, which found opioid death increases in 30 states, and stable rates in 19 states over the six-year period since 2010. And 19 states experienced significant increases in overdose deaths in one year, between 2014-2015. These states were primarily in the Northeast and South.

CDC also conducted a more detailed state-level analysis of 28 states with high-quality data, which is included in the report.

These reports follow a comprehensive report on alcohol, drugs and health that the surgeon general released in November. It includes information on the neurobiology behind addiction, prevention, treatment, recovery and other resources.

Categorizing drug overdose deaths is tricky for states and federal agencies. In approximately one in five deaths, no specific drug is listed on the death certificate, according to CDC. And in many overdose deaths, multiple drugs are present in the victim. However, CDC’s analyses found that continued increases in deaths from prescription opioids as well as illicit opioids (e.g., heroin and illegally-made fentanyl) contributed to this upward trend in death rates.

Lawmakers are moving quickly to address the opioid epidemic, which has claimed more than 300,000 lives since 2000. Policymakers are considering and enacting laws related to prescription drug monitoring programs, naloxone access (an overdose reversal drug), and access to substance use disorder treatment, for example.

Federal agencies have also increased state grant funding opportunities to combat the epidemic. 

Congress recently passed the 21st Century Cures Act, which will link leaders of various health and human service agencies such as the Veterans Administration, Department of Justice and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and provide $1 billion in state grants over two years to address opioid abuse and addiction treatment and research. SAMHSA provides substance abuse prevention and treatment block grants to states, territories and tribal entities.

CDC is also funding 44 states and the District of Columbia with more than $70 million that Congress appropriated in FY 2016 to bolster states’ efforts with data-based approaches to preventing prescription drug overdose, and enhancing state surveillance of opioid-involved morbidity and mortality, among other efforts. Last year, CDC also released Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, providing recommendations to providers.

NCSL continues to provide technical assistance on this issue and maintains a number of resources related to health, human services and criminal justice.

Drug abuse map from CDC

Click here for a fully interactive version of this map from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kate Blackman and Karmen Hanson cover public health issues in NCSL’s Health program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.