CDC and DEA find a growing epidemic inside the pandemic

Drug overdoses and a shifted landscape create new and urgent challenges

For anyone who, like me, is a bit of a data geek—we have reasons to be concerned about the drugs-of-abuse landscape. The most recently released CDC and DEA data paints a picture of an epidemic that not only persists but is growing in scale and accelerating. Three things jump out at me.

  •  Numbers don’t lie…ever. Stories can be spun in any number of directions to suit the teller’s purpose. But numbers don’t give us that luxury. They are raw and cold indicators that don’t leave room for interpretation. And the numbers for 2020 tell a story of a drugs-of-abuse epidemic that reached some grim milestones as it continued to rage across every region of the country.
    • In the 12 months between December 2019 and December 2020, drug deaths increased by 30% over the previous 12 months to over 93,000.
    • Deaths by opioids represented 75% of the total.

The numbers also show that those double-digit increases in year-over-year deaths are continuing into the near year. Drug deaths for the 12 months between March 2020 and March 2021 increased by 30% to 96,779.

  • 2020 was a year of transition for drug cartels. It should be no surprise that the drug cartels have changed their game to feature a vastly more profitable offering: counterfeit pills that are most often fentanyl-in-disguise. According to DEA data, those pills are flooding the U.S. market and are most often in the form of pills favored by teens and young adults. As you might expect, deaths by these pills are up. Nearly 3 out of 4 opioid deaths in the U.S. are due to a synthetic opioid—-most
    often fentanyl. That represents almost 50,000 lives lost to that potent synthetic opioid in 2020.

    • Law enforcement seizures of counterfeit pills have surged by 430% since 2019
    • 40% of all seized counterfeit pills have a potentially fatal dose of fentanyl in them
  • The most urgent threat to the workplace or campus is invisible. For the most part, drug program administrators continue to rely on the 5-panel urine test as their tool for drug detection. But the explosive emergence of these new threats makes that a risky choice—especially for pre-employment or return-to-duty testing—for three reasons.
    1. Like any opioid, these counterfeit pills pose the highest risk for impaired performance, decision-making, or physical dexterity.
    2. The urine test is easily evaded when the subject knows it is scheduled. Opioids are virtually undetectable in urine after just a few days.
    3. A standard 5-panel test will not detect fentanyl. A panel specifically designed to detect it must be used.


Both CDC and DEA data underscore that the epidemic continues, is expanding and the threat is shifting to a particularly lethal drug that is difficult to detect with a urine test and impossible to detect without a purpose-built screen. Many drug programs administrators are now adding fentanyl-specific screens to their
5-panel test as a proactive step in managing the new threat.
The Psychemedics fentanyl screen is FDA-approved and any usage in the 90-days prior to the text being administered to eliminate short term abstinence as a cheating tactic.