More people died from opioid-related deaths in 2015 than in any previous year. This record number quadrupled the level of such deaths in 1999. Unlike the heroin and crack crises of the past, the current opioid emergency has disproportionately affected white Americans—poor and rural, but also middle class or affluent and suburban. This association has boosted support for preventative and treatment-based policy solutions. But the pace of the response has been slow, critical components of the solution—such as health insurance coverage expansion and improved access to medication assisted treatment—face resistance, and there are growing efforts to revamp the failed and costly War on Drugs.
This report examines the sources of the opioid crisis, surveys health and justice policy responses at the federal and state levels, and draws on lessons from past drug crises to provide guidance on how to proceed.
The War on Drugs did not play a major role in ebbing past cycles of drug use, as revealed by extensive research and the reflections of police chiefs. In 2014, the National Research Council concluded:
The best empirical evidence suggests that the successive iterations of the war on drugs—through a substantial public policy effort—are unlikely to have markedly or clearly reduced drug
crime over the past three decades.
Growing public awareness of the limited impact and devastating toll of the War on Drugs has encouraged many policymakers and criminal justice practitioners to begin its winding down. The number of people imprisoned nationwide for a drug offense skyrocketed from 24,000 in 1980 to a peak of 369,000 in 2007. It has since declined by nearly one-quarter, reaching approximately 287,000 people in the most recent count.