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Drug overdose deaths fell in 2023, 1st decrease in 5 years: CDC

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(NEW YORK) -- Drug overdose deaths fell in 2023, marking the first decrease in five years, new provisional federal data published Wednesday showed.

An estimated 107,543 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2023, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics.

This is a 3% decrease from the estimated 111,029 overdose deaths that occurred in 2022 and the first annual decrease in drug overdose deaths since 2018.

Dr. Susan Sherman, a professor in the department of health, behavior and society at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told ABC News it's "great" to see the numbers trending downward.

"If you think about it, the numbers are so crazy high that we were below 100,000 the last time we had a dip," she said. "It's great that there's a decrease."

The data shows that overdose deaths involving opioids fell from an estimated 84,181 in 2022 to 81,083 in 2023.

While the majority of overdose deaths in 2023 were due to synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, there was a decrease from 2022. An estimated 76,226 deaths were linked to synthetic opioids in 2022 compared to 74,702 deaths in 2023.

Fentanyl is up to 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine and can be deadly even in small doses, according to the CDC. Other drugs may be laced with deadly levels of fentanyl, and a user is not able to see it, taste it, or smell it.

Unless drugs are tested with fentanyl test strips, it is nearly impossible to tell if they have been laced with the synthetic opioid, the CDC said.

Deaths linked to natural or semi-synthetic drugs, such as morphine and codeine, also fell from 12,135 In 2022 to 10,171 in 2023. However, deaths associated with psychostimulants, including methamphetamine, and cocaine increased from 2022 to 2023.

Some states across the U.S. saw decreases with Indiana, Kansas, Maine and Nebraska experiencing declines of 15% or more, the data shows. However, there were increases in others with Alaska, Oregon and Washington seeing an increase of least 27% compared to the same period in 2022.

In Alaska, opioid overdoses have steadily been increasing since at least 2018, according to the state's Department of Public Health. A state report released earlier this year found 2022 to be the deadliest year on record in Alaska for opioid overdoses.

Additionally, earlier this year in Portland, Oregon, government officials declared a 90-day state of emergency to address the city's growing fentanyl crisis. In November 2020, Oregonians voted to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs, but the state reversed course with lawmakers passing a bill earlier this year to recriminalize drug possession.

Some of the progress may be attributed to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approving the overdose reversal drug Narcan for over-the-counter use in March 2023, becoming available in September.

Narcan, made by the company Emergent BioSolutions, is given as a nasal spray and the active ingredient in the medication -- naloxone -- can quickly reverse the effect of opioids to restore breathing if someone is experiencing an opioid overdose.

Harm reduction groups and other experts have been pushing for easier access to naloxone as one strategy to help prevent some of the tens of thousands of overdose deaths that occur each year in the U.S.

"Sometimes when things decrease, we think, 'Oh, we're done,'" Sherman said. "I think sometimes people think, 'Job's done.' But of course, the job is not done. I worry people [will] lift their foot off the gas."

Sherman said to keep bringing the number of drug overdose deaths down, it's important to keep scaling up interventions that work including making medications for opioid use disorder and syringe service programs more accessible.

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