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Press Releases
August 31, 2023

The United States Must Act to Stem Tide of Overdose Deaths

NEW YORK—On International Overdose Awareness Day, the Open Society Foundations call on decisionmakers to invest in harm-reduction approaches to address the U.S. overdose crisis and to leave behind the policies that defined the U.S.’ failed “War on Drugs.”

In 2021, 106,699 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S. according to the Centers for Disease Control, a rate of over 300 deaths per day—and death rates are increasing fastest among Black men. Opioids—mainly synthetic opioids—are currently the main driver of deaths. In the next several years, more than $50 billion will flow to communities nationwide in the form of payouts from a series of landmark settlements with top drug distributors, pharmacies, and drugmakers accused of fueling the crisis, including Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, and Walmart.

The process to decide how the funds will be spent varies state by state, with a combination of legislatures, county and city councils, and special advisory councils having authority over disbursement of funds.

Over 200 leading scientists, and clinicians, have now signed a statement calling on state and local governments to take advantage of this historic opportunity and deploy forthcoming opioid settlement funds toward programs that are proven to be effective in preventing overdose deaths. Examples include services that dispense sterile syringes and connect people to care; the provision of the opioid overdose reversal medicine naloxone; the opening of more overdose prevention centers where people can use drugs under the supervision of trained staff; medication-assisted treatment with methadone and buprenorphine; and low-threshold housing. At the same time, the scientists caution against using the funds to expand policing and incarceration and other approaches that have led to swollen prison populations and failed to prevent death.

“Now that litigation has forced a measure of accountability from Big Pharma, those responsible for disbursing funds must serve the interests of our communities rather than those of an inflated carceral system,” said Laleh Ispahani, executive director of Open Society-U.S. “While support and funding for harm reduction, and comprehensive, universal, and equitable social safety nets, is growing, it still lags punitive approaches—one reason that the overdose crisis persists in the U.S. As we remember those who have lost lives to overdose, let’s ensure that these once-in-a-lifetime settlement funds fix the system that led to their preventable deaths.”

“Opioid settlement funds are already being diverted to fund jails and abstinence-only treatment, approaches which only exacerbate overdose risk,” said Sarah Evans, division director of drug policy at the Open Society Foundations. “Overwhelming evidence shows that community health and housing save lives. The $50 billion in opioid settlement funds is a once-in-a-generation influx of resources—and an opportunity to revisit how we fight overdose deaths in America.”

Over the past three decades, the Open Society Foundations have been the largest philanthropic supporter of efforts to reform drug policy and promote harm reduction around the world, investing more than $300 million. Together with grantees and partners, the Foundations have supported front-line work to promote an alternative approach to drug policy—one focusing on access to health care and social support, rather than on punishment and prohibition.