DEA: Heroin Overdose Deaths Have Tripled, Exacerbated by Fentanyl and Carfentanil

By McCarton Ackerman 12/09/16

The DEA's 2016 Drug Threat Assessment report reflects the grim reality of the US opioid epidemic.

DEA: Heroin Overdose Deaths Have Tripled, Exacerbated by Fentanyl and Carfentanil

The Drug Enforcement Administration has painted a grim portrait of heroin use in the U.S., reporting that overdoses related to the drug tripled during a recent four-year period.

Their National Drug Threat Assessment released on Tuesday showed that overdose deaths increased three-fold nationally from 2010-2014. Approximately 10,574 people died from heroin overdoses in 2014, with about 103 people per day passing away from heroin or pharmaceutical opioids that same year. Most of these heroin overdoses occurred in the Northeast and Midwest regions.

"Sadly, this report reconfirms that opioids such as heroin and fentanyl - and diverted prescription pain pills - are killing people in this country at a horrifying rate," said acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg. "We face a public health crisis of historic proportions. Countering it requires a comprehensive approach that includes law enforcement, education, and treatment." 

The findings also showed that synthetic opioid deaths jumped 79% between 2013 and 2014 (3,097 to 5,544), while cocaine availability and use also increased between 2014 and 2015. The NDTA reported that Mexican transnational criminal organizations were the primary suppliers of these two drugs.

Waves of mass heroin overdoses made headlines in the second half of 2016, particularly in the state of Ohio. Carfentanil, a powerful derivative of fentanyl that is 10,000 times stronger than morphine, was found in batches of heroin across the country. Users were reportedly mixing the elephant sedative into their heroin to create a drastically increased high that often turned lethal.

Authorities in Akron, Ohio, reported 91 overdoses and eight deaths from the tainted heroin during a 10-day period last July, leading Akron Mayor Dan Harrington to declare a “public health crisis.” The week of Aug. 26 also saw 176 estimated ER overdoses cases related to carfentanil-laced heroin in the Cincinnati.

Akron Deputy Fire Chief Charles Twigg also noted that carfentanil doesn’t react to Narcan, which has been proven effective in reversing the effects of an overdose with standard heroin. With an estimated one million heroin users in the U.S., this means a likely continued increase in fatal heroin overdoses until a solution can be found.

“The only thing killing you is respiratory depression,” Dr. Lewis Nelson, a medical toxicologist and emergency physician at NYU’s School of Medicine, told Forbes. “If I took a few times the therapeutic dose of an opioid, my breathing would slow, and I might die in several hours—it’s a slow spiral toward death.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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