Drug-Related Deaths Plunge In Ohio: How They Did It

By Maggie Ethridge 11/28/18

The fading presence of carfentanil may have played a major role in the decline of drug-related deaths in some parts of Ohio.

drug-related deaths are trending down in Ohio

Overdose deaths in Montgomery County have dramatically decreased in 2018. The county has seen an incredible 54% decline in overdose deaths. There were 548 by November 30 of last year; this year there have been 250.

Dayton, the county seat, is an economically challenged city, deserted of jobs after manufacturers left in droves. Some speculate that this is part of the reason why Dayton had the highest opioid overdose death rates in the nation in 2017.

The overdose deaths in Montgomery County were so rapid and unrelenting that, according to the New York Times, the coroner’s office continuously ran out of space, and ended up renting refrigerated trailers. So what has changed?

The New York Times did extensive research and reporting to answer this question. Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley believes the largest impact on the rate of overdose deaths came from Gov. John Kasich’s decision to expand Medicaid in 2015. This expansion allowed almost 700,000 low-income adults access to free addiction and mental health treatment.

In addition, the expansion of Medicaid pulled in more than a dozen new treatment providers—both residential and outpatient programs—within a year, providing methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone treatments. The FDA has approved these medications to treat opioid addiction.

“It’s the basis... for everything we’ve built regarding treatment,” said Mayor Whaley. “If you’re a state that does not have Medicaid expansion, you can’t build a system for addressing this disease.”

Dayton’s East End holds a bimonthly event called Conversations for Change, where people can learn about available addiction treatment options. Food is served, and attendees can meet with treatment providers. 

Significant to a large degree is the fading presence on the streets of Dayton of carfentanil, an analog of the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Carfentanil is described by the CDC as 10,000 times more powerful than morphine, according to the NYT.

In recent years, carfentanil was very present in Ohio street drugs, for unknown reasons. By mid-2017, carfentanil’s hold began to loosen, possibly because drug traffickers realized they were losing many of their customers, said Timothy Plancon, a DEA special agent in charge of Ohio.

A crucial decision made in 2014 by Richard Biehl, Dayton's police chief, likely affected the number of overdose deaths as well. Chief Biehl ordered all officers to carry naloxone. Naloxone (or Narcan) is the medication that reverses opioid overdoses if administered in a timely manner.

Some police officers in Ohio and elsewhere oppose harm reduction tools like naloxone due to a belief that they simply enable drug use, the NYT notes. Still, the evidence is overwhelming that they save lives.

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Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.