More than 100,000 people died over a 12-month period from fatal drug overdoses for the first time in U.S. history, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
"To all those families who have mourned a loved one and to all those people who are facing addiction or are in recovery: you are in our hearts," said President Joe Biden in a statement issued by the White House. "Together, we will turn the tide on this epidemic."
"This tragic milestone represents an increase of 28.5%" over the same period just a year earlier, said Dr. Deb Houry with the CDC in a call with reporters Wednesday.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, who heads the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, called the surge in drug fatalities "unacceptable."
"An overdose is a cry for help," Gupta said during the press conference. "For far too many people that cry goes unanswered. This requires a whole lot of government response and evidence-based strategies."
Experts blame the continuing surge on the spread of more dangerous street drugs and on disruptions to drug treatment programs caused by the pandemic.
"[Overdoses] are driven both by fentanyl and also by methamphetamines," said Dr. Nora Volkov, who heads the National Institute On Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health.
She predicted the surge of fatalities would continue because of the spread of more dangerous street drugs.
"They are among the most addictive drugs that we know of and the most lethal," Volkov said.
In recent years, Mexican drug cartels have pivoted to manufacturing and distributing fentanyl and methamphetamines, which are cheaper to produce and can be shipped in small quantities that are difficult to detect.
Anne Milgram, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, acknowledged Wednesday that efforts to slow trafficking of these drugs haven't worked.
"This year alone DEA has seized enough fentanyl to provide every member of the U.S. population with a lethal dose," Milgram said. "We are still seizing more fentanyl each and every day."
The Biden administration is calling on Congress to approve more than $10 billion in funding for drug treatment and interdiction programs. The White House also asked states to relax rules that complicate access to Naloxone, a medication that can reverse overdoses caused by fentanyl and other opioids.
But the Biden administration has sent mixed signals on how committed it is to following science-based "harm reduction" strategies proven to help keep people with addiction alive.
In an interview last month with NPR, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra initially signaled that the federal government would drop opposition to safe drug injection and consumption sites.
"We're not going to say 'but you can't do these other type of supervised consumption programs that you think work or that evidence shows work,'" Becerra said.
But HHS officials quickly walked back that statement and say the question of whether people with substance use disorder should be allowed to use drugs under medical supervision will be decided by the courts.
The DEA has also drawn fire in recent weeks for taking a tough stance with pharmacies that distribute buprenorphine, another medication with a strong track record of helping people with addiction avoid relapse and overdose.