Colorado Overdose Rates Are On The Rise

By Keri Blakinger 04/08/16

A map of CDC data illustrates a grim reality in Colorado—home of the some of the highest drug death rates in the country.

Colorado Overdose Rates Are On The Rise
Courtesy ofThe Colorado Health Institute

Drug overdose deaths are on the rise in Colorado—and one policy analyst has mapped out the dismal trend in a visually striking graphic. Overall, overdose deaths are already above average in the Centennial State, and they’ve steadily increased over the past decade.

A time-lapse map of CDC data from 2002 to 2014, put together by Colorado Health Institute policy analyst Tamara Keeney, illustrates “a pretty grim tally,” she told Colorado Public Radio.

Courtesy of The Colorado Health Institute

The map shows overdoses by county, with higher rates of overdose in darker shades. As time passes, the counties get darker and darker. “No county in the state gets any lighter,” said Keeney. Some counties have significantly higher increases than others, including the sparsely populated rural Jackson County in the northern end of the state, Denver and surrounding counties, and a cluster of counties in the southeast corner of the state. “What we saw that was really striking to us was that rarely do we see a health metric that moves so quickly and is so widespread," Keeney said.

Twelve Colorado counties now have some of the highest drug death rates in the country. The trend toward increasing drug deaths is not limited to Colorado, as we've seen all over the United States. Rob Valuck, a pharmacy professor at the University of Colorado, noted that fatal overdoses recently surpassed car crashes as the number one cause of death. Last year, the CDC reported that more people now die from drug overdoses than car accidents nationwide. In 2014, the number of fatal overdoses exceeded 47,000 across the country. 

Both in Colorado and elsewhere, Valuck added, about two-thirds of overdose deaths are from prescription opioids. "They’re more powerful than people think," Valuck said. Not only are they powerful, but the U.S. gobbles up between 80 and 90 percent of the world’s opioids. But, he said, “I don’t think we have 80 to 90 percent of the world’s pain.”

The current opioid epidemic has cut across many demographics, but it hasn’t affected everyone equally. Specifically, it’s 25- to 55-year-old men who are most affected, notes CPR. Karen Hill’s son fit that demographic when he died, and she now goes around the state with a nonprofit group that seeks to build awareness about the dangers of prescription drugs.

“We don’t think of them as a killer,” she told CPR. “It’s just a prescription written by a doctor so it must be safe. And we just leave it in the medicine cabinet without realizing that it’s such easy access for someone.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.