Data has emerged as a crucial weapon in the battle against the overdose epidemic in the United States.

Government agencies nationwide are grappling with social issues such as gun violence, gang activity, burglaries and homelessness to go along with the enduring overdose crisis. Addressing these issues requires using data to uncover insights and understanding them to inform policies and programs.

The sobering reality of the overdose epidemic

The overdose epidemic, in particular, has unfolded in waves, steadily claiming lives and leaving a trail of destruction. Despite the US government investing billions of dollars annually for treatment and research, more than 107,000 people died between August 2021 to August 2022 from drug-related causes, according to the CDC. A deeper dive into CDC data reveals an even more shocking statistic: Between 1999 and 2020, over 564,000 people died from an overdose involving any opioid, including prescription and illicit opioids.

Recognizing root causes and employing data for change

While the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to this astounding and horrific number of overdose deaths, the waves of the epidemic began long before that, signifying a deep-rooted problem that requires urgent attention.

Often, the drug data needed to inform policies and programs for this crisis is limited and outdated due to agency cultural, technological, procedural and data policy barriers. This inhibits cross-data analysis, affecting government agencies’ ability to make informed, evidence-based decisions that effectively mitigate or prevent such issues.

Addressing the overdose epidemic requires breaking down these barriers and establishing robust data collection, sharing and analysis frameworks. In doing so, government agencies can gain deeper insights into the dynamics of the epidemic and identify high-risk areas, vulnerable populations and potential root causes.

Aligning policies with realities

Each wave of the epidemic has necessitated a response, resulting in waves of modalities and policies regarding drug prevention, treatment, recovery and enforcement. But have these modalities and policies corresponded with the substances involved in the respective waves? For example, in New Jersey, where the presence of fentanyl in the drug supply was unknown for years, the modalities and policies did not align with the situation. Data and analysis provided the awareness to inform relevant policy decisions, programs and operations. For instance, the authorization for police officers to administer Narcan, a life-saving medication, was based on data insights. Data analysis informs responses to viruses or contaminated water. It can also offer valuable insights for combating drug-related crises.

Challenges and the power of technology

While data is essential, it comes with its own challenges, as the volume, variety and velocity of data are overwhelming. For example, the amount of data generated from the vast array of novel psychoactive substances is monumental. With over 2,600 possible fentanyl-related substances, often mixed with other drugs and cutting agents, tracking these mixtures and their involvement in overdoses and arrests generates a very large amount of data. Safeguarding data privacy and security is important before any analysis is conducted. These insights are vital for decision making, driving effective operations, and developing strategies and programs that save lives, reduce costs and adapt to the ever-changing drug environment.

The future of the overdose epidemic

The fight against the overdose epidemic requires a comprehensive approach and data serves as a guiding light in this endeavor. Leaders can ensure a targeted and effective response by recognizing changes in the drug environment earlier and aligning policies with the substances driving each wave. The challenges posed by the vast amount of data can be met through technology, which helps agencies extract meaningful insights to reduce morbidity and mortality.

Using data and technology, we can drive informed decision making, allocate resources accurately, develop timely response efforts and ultimately make significant strides in combating the overdose epidemic. We all can work together toward a future where lives are saved and the impacts of drug-related harm are minimized.

Read more about how SAS can help agencies combat substance use disorder using data and analytics.


About Author

Juan Colon

Advisory Industry Consultant, SAS

Juan Colon is the National Director of Opioids and Illegal Drug Solutions for the SAS Institute. He serves as an industry consultant responsible for pre-sales functions for the Law Enforcement Solutions Product Line in the Americas and the Caribbean. He facilitates the development of various technologies around public safety matters such as the opioid crisis, gangs, homeland security, and police reform. This includes the development of marketing material and thought leadership communications related to public safety. Prior to joining SAS, Colon retired in 2018 at the rank of Major after serving 25 years with the New Jersey State Police. Throughout his career, Colon served in several assignments including New Jersey Attorney General’s law enforcement drug policy advisor, fusion center commander, intelligence officer, gang expert, and drug interdiction officer. Through these experiences, he gained insights into the challenges that fusion center face in meeting their homeland/hometown security missions, law enforcement and public health information security and handling regulations and practices, interoperability, requirements management, intelligence production, and how to leverage data to support field operations as well as policy development at all levels of government. Colon’s experience enables him to ensure that SAS’s technologies are developed to meet the various public safety and homeland security demands.

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