Overdose Deaths in the U.S. Jumped Last Year. Which Factors Contributed to This?

Overdose Deaths in the U.S. Jumped Last Year and we take a look at what could help explain this.


It has been reported that over 100,000 people died of overdoses in 2020 in the U.S. or 13% of the number of people that died from COVID in the same year. Did this increase coincide with other factors? We take a look at the numbers.


We looked at overdose deaths in relation to other factors in the U.S. We compared these deaths to the party by state, the region of the U.S. each state belongs to, marijuana legalization for each state, and by the intensity of the Lockdowns of each state that took place during the pandemic.  

For the party of each state, we used the party that the Governor of the state belongs to identify which party each state belongs to. For legalization of marijuana in each state, we considered the state to be a legal marijuana state if it allowed recreational marijuana. For the region analysis, we simply consider which region of the U.S the state belonged to, Northeast, South, Southwest, or Midwest. Finally, for the COVID lockdown strictness, we created a lockdown score compromised of the number of days and severity of lockdowns each state-enforced.

Below you can find the baseline statistics used in this analysis.

Results: Political Party

When reviewing results by political party we found that Republican states had 4% greater deaths per million from overdoses than Democrat states. We also found that Democrat states had a 1% greater increase in overdose deaths from 2019 to 2020.

Results: Marijuana Legalization

Here we found some interesting results. States that allowed for recreational marijuana saw fewer deaths per million from overdoses and smaller increases in overdose deaths from 2019 

to 2020. States, where recreational marijuana was illegal, had 13% more overdose deaths and an increase of 7% in overdose deaths in 2020 from 2019.

Results: Region

Regions in the U.S. experienced different rates of overdose deaths. Overall, overdose deaths were fairly tight except for the Western U.S., which saw fewer overdose deaths. The worse region was the South, but only by a difference of 4%. However, we did see a more significant change in deaths in the South, they saw a 31% large increase than peers from 2019 to 2020.

Results: COVID Lockdowns

With COVID lockdown strictness we saw the greatest amount of change and the second-largest amount of variance in the absolute number of overdose deaths. We found that states with very strict or long (a 3 on a 1-to-4-point scale) lockdowns had 15% more deaths from overdoses. Even more surprising, we found that states with the strictest (a 4 on a 1-to-4-point scale) saw the largest amount of change, 35%, in overdose deaths – across all four categories we reviewed.

We were also able to look at the relationship between lockdown strictness, party, and deaths. Across both party’s and all states, regardless of party, we found that as the strictness of lockdowns increased the deaths per million from overdoses also increased, more so with Republican states.

However, there was no percent change from 2019 to 2020. As we know, there were no lockdowns in 2019. This suggests that there is some other, third, correlative factor at play – whatever that factor is it does appear to be stronger in Republican states, particularly Ohio and Massachusetts.

We were also able to look at the relationship between lockdown strictness, region, and deaths. Across all regions, regardless of region, we found that the deaths per million from overdoses increased as the strictness of lockdowns did increase. This was the case for all regions, except for the Northeast.

Reviewing the change in overdose deaths and lockdowns by region we found that there was very little change in the change in deaths per million as lockdowns became stricter for all states. Here though, when we decompose by region, we find some very stark differences. States in the West tended to see higher deaths from overdoses as lockdowns become stricter. States in the Northeast and South saw deaths fall as lockdowns became stricter.


We found evidence that states with stricter lockdowns saw larger than normal overdose deaths and larger than normal increases in overdose deaths. We also found that the South saw an outsized increase in overdose deaths from 2019 to 2020, followed by Western states. Finally, we saw evidence that states with legalized recreational marijuana saw smaller overdose deaths and a smaller increase in overdose deaths than states where recreational marijuana is illegal.