Per the National Safety Council, over 100,000 people died in America from drug overdoses in 2021. Of these numbers, about 92,000 were listed as preventable. A Rolling Stone report exposed a rising number of overdose deaths among the military, specifically at then-named Fort Bragg, North Carolina, now named Fort Liberty. When the report was released, Senator Edward Markey, John Cornyn, Elizabeth Warren, Lisa Murkowski, and Martin Heinrich sent a letter to Secretary Austin requesting specific information on the deaths and non-fatal overdoses occurring in the military. The Pentagon investigated these numbers and determined that the overdoses were increasing at the same velocity they had increased in the civilian population. As a result, the military will start compiling data in 2024 on overdoses among military members.
Per an article on Military.com, 330 service members have died of drug overdoses from 2017 to 2021, with 10% of those deaths occurring at Fort Liberty. In addition, 15,000 troops suffered non-fatal overdoses, with most being accidental. The annual defense bill requires the military to track the overdose locations, demographics, if the service member sought mental health treatment, and any prescriptions of opioids, benzodiazepines, or stimulants that are known to be addictive and increase the risk for overdose.
The DEA has recommended that any individual prescribed an opioid be prescribed naloxone. Naloxone, or Narcan, is a medication that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose, which can quickly wake up a person who has taken too much opioid and returned to normal breathing patterns. It is a nasal spray that can easily be given to anyone with a possible overdose and by anyone without any medical training. As part of the NDAA, the military must make a plan to make Narcan available to all military troops. Some U.S. cities, like San Diego, have made Narcan available in publicly accessible vending machines for a much more affordable price than the pharmacies charge for the medication through patient’s insurance. Having Narcan available for any and all means that anyone can purchase the medication on hand if it is never needed in an emergency, even without a prescription or ever having been prescribed opioids.
Another method the DEA has begun to help lessen the availability of opioids for the public to consume potentially is to enact DEA National Take Back Day. On these official days, collection sites are set up to take back any unused opioids. The schedule and collection site locator can be found here. Many military pharmacies have take back prescription collection boxes daily, which any unused prescriptions can be turned in. Turning in unused prescriptions prevents children from finding and taking the medications or even an intentional overtaking by anyone with access to the medication.
Beyond prescription opioids, benzodiazepines, or stimulants, these drugs can be purchased illegally on the street. These illegal drugs, though, are typically mixed with fentanyl to increase the sensation of feeling “high.” Fentanyl is more potent, and for those who have never taken the drug before can easily lead to opioid overdose and death.
Over the last two decades, the war on drugs has increased and changed. The D.A.R.E. generation is beyond “just say no,” as fentanyl was not widely available on the streets of America at the time the program first started. While the D.A.R.E. program continues in the schools, more education and availability of tools to combat the opioid crisis are needed, and the DOD tracking this information within the military may help prevent further deaths among their ranks.