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Unraveling the Drug Crisis: Providing Timely Data to Break the Cycle

IPR’s Lori Ann Post is leading a drug data research center to combat overdose deaths

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The problem is that we're too late. Data were just released for 2021; it's 2024. It's as helpful to me today to combat drug overdose deaths to study the year 2021 as it is 1850. It's just a whole different ballgame out there.”

Lori Ann Post
Demographer, epidemiologist, and IPR associate


Throughout its history, the U.S. has battled waves of widespread drug addiction. From painkiller addictions on Civil War battlefields to the 1980s era of crack cocaine, each crisis gives way to a new one.

Today, however, with new drugs constantly emerging, it's becoming harder to keep up with creating drug screenings and medicine to reverse overdoses. This lag leads to more overdose deaths, according to demographer, epidemiologist, and IPR associate Lori Ann Post.

Post emphasizes that we are not in a drug epidemic: We’re in a continuous, evolving drug crisis. Pandemics and epidemics have a clear beginning, middle, and end, she says, but the shape-shifting nature of the drug crisis leaves no end in sight.

The Ohio River Valley Corridor Regional Drug Data Research Center (ORVC-C), led by Post, aims to keep history from repeating itself. The center aims to support prevention, harm reduction, treatment, public safety, and recovery services, and to create a drug data-sharing model for others. Currently, overdose death data lags two or three years behind.

“The problem is that we're too late. Data were just released for 2021; it's 2024,” Post said. “It's as helpful to me today to combat drug overdose deaths to study the year 2021 as it is 1850. It's just a whole different ballgame out there.”

“By the time we get the evidence we have, it's already too late and the problem has evolved, and it's a new variant of concern and has new treatment and needs,” she explained.

Approximately 107,622 drug overdose deaths were reported in 2021, up nearly 15% from 93,655 deaths in 2020. Over 75% of those deaths involved opioids. The COVID-19 pandemic is commonly blamed for the surge in overdose deaths, but Post said the rates were "skyrocketing" before the pandemic.

Since 1999, almost 645,000 people have died from overdoses involving opioids. This rise in opioid overdose deaths can be explained in waves, according to Post:

  • The first wave started in the 1990s due to an increase in opioid prescriptions.
  • The second wave began in 2010, marked by a sharp increase in overdose deaths involving heroin.
  • The third wave began in 2013, with significant increases in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids, particularly illicitly manufactured fentanyl.
  • The fourth wave began around 2019 and is largely still driven by fentanyl with the addition of stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamines.

Post explains that the fourth wave is further evolving into drug cocktails that are adulterated with animal tranquilizers. This wave is more dangerous than its predecessors, as these drug combinations are more lethal and reversal agents are limited to fentanyl overdoses.

The ORVC-C launched in October with $3.55 million in funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. It operates in the Ohio River Valley Corridor, encompassing Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia. These regions bear a lopsided burden of escalating rates of drug overdoses, individuals with substance use disorder, and drug/narcotic violations, Post says.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance has doubled the funding to create a second regional center extending the initial center to New England, New York, and New Jersey.

Within the center, Post established a Central Data Repository (CDR) and a Dissemination and Engagement Center (DEC). The CDR collects, analyzes, and shares comprehensive drug-related data from existing information collected by local, state, and national agencies. This covers labor, crime, public health indicators, and demographic data. The DEC fosters partnerships and produces educational materials to address needs as they arise.

Post says that the center processes data to provide actionable insights for policymakers, public health practitioners, law enforcement, and other stakeholders, while also ensuring accessibility for fellow researchers.

Streamlining the data collection process reduces administrative burdens. It also allows researchers to delve directly into addressing critical issues without unnecessary hurdles.

“The more people doing research on it, the better we're going to do,” she said. “The timelier the data is, the more relevant it is to solving drug use and preventing drug overdose deaths. That’s the whole point.”

Lori Ann Post is the Buehler Professor for Aging, director of the Buehler Center for Health Policy and Economics, and an IPR associate.

Photo credit: iStock

Published: May 10, 2024.