Seattle Area Sees Spike in Drug Overdose Deaths

By May Wilkerson 06/19/15

Both heroin and meth-related deaths have risen to alarming new highs.

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Drug-related deaths are rising at an alarming rate in the Seattle area, a new report highlights.

In King County, Wash., heroin was involved in 156 deaths in 2014, up from 99 the year before, according to a report released Thursday by the University of Washington's Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute. This 58% surge was the steepest rise in local drug-related deaths in 17 years.

Drug deaths tied to methamphetamine also rose by 59%, with 70 deaths in 2014, up from 44 the year before. Overall, there were 314 drug-related deaths in the area last year, the highest number since 1997.

Caleb Banta-Green, an affiliate associate professor of health services with the UW School of Public Health, called the trend “distressing.” “I knew it was going to go up,” he said. “I didn’t know it was going to go up that much.”

At the same time, there has been a dramatic decrease in deaths tied to opiate painkillers like Oxycodone. Last year, 98 people died from opiate overdoses, compared to 164 in 2009, a 40% drop. Banta-Green attributes this to a national crackdown on prescription painkillers that has made it more difficult for people to obtain these legal drugs. “A lot of the decline in deaths from prescription opiates is in people who don’t have illegal drugs in their system,” he said.

But fatalities from illegal drugs, like heroin, are increasing, and expanding across new demographics. In the past, young adults were most likely to die from overdoses, but there has been a rise in deaths among people over 50, said Banta-Green. “The main issue is that there are a lot more users,” he said.

In the Seattle area, the rise in deaths may also be linked to the type of heroin found in the area, which is higher-purity and more potent.

Across the country, drug-overdose deaths have more than doubled in the past 14 years, becoming the leading cause of injury death in the U.S., according to a study published this week by the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health. In 2013, nearly 44,000 people died from drug overdoses.

The good news is that 34 states, including Washington, now allow access to naloxone, an opiate antidote that can reverse overdoses and save lives. “The more naloxone you get out to heroin users, the lower the death rate,” said Banta-Green.

But the real solution, he said, is medication-assisted drug treatment. Last year, nearly 3,000 people were admitted to treatment for heroin addiction, the study found, nearly twice as many as were admitted in 2010.

“People need to understand that untreated opiate addiction can be deadly," Said Banta-Green.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.