Drug-Related Deaths Rising Faster Than Ever

By Kelly Burch 06/08/17

Drug-related deaths are up 19% since 2015.

an assortment of hard drugs and drug paraphernalia

Drug deaths across the nation are rising faster than ever, with an expected 19% increase in drug-related fatalities in 2016, according to analysis by The New York Times.

The report predicted that at least 59,000 Americans died from drug use in 2016, a 19% rise from 2015. That surpasses the peak annual death rates from HIV (peaked in 1995), gun deaths (1993) and car crash deaths (1972). Drug deaths are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.  

In order to compile the data, the Times looked at state health department data from around the country. Official statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may not be available until December, since drug deaths are notoriously hard to track and toxicology reports that confirm cause of death can take up to six months to come in.

“It’s frustrating, because we really do want to track this stuff,” said Robert Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch of the National Center for Health Statistics at the CDC.

In fact, the CDC has said that opioid-related deaths are likely widely underreported, making the Times report even more shocking. 

The rising death rate was fueled in large part by fentanyl, a particularly strong opioid that's been turning up in street heroin and cocaine, though not as often. During 2016, drug seizures containing fentanyl doubled, from just over 15,000 in 2015 to more than 30,000. 

The Times data showed that the East Coast saw the most dramatic rise in drug-related deaths. Maryland, Florida, Pennsylvania and Maine all had particularly steep increases. In Ohio, which recently filed a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, the death rate rose more than 25% last year.

Gary Guenther, the county medical examiner’s chief investigator in Summit County, Ohio, had to request refrigerated trailers on three occasions last year because the county had run out of room in the morgue for all the overdose victims' bodies. 

In some western states, the data showed that death rates have leveled or even declined. Dr. Dan Ciccarone, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told the Times that this is because fentanyl is less likely to be found in black tar heroin that is more common in western states, than it is to be found in powdered heroin more common on the East Coast.

However, he warned that if traffickers begin bringing fentanyl and other synthetic opioids into the West, death rates may sharply increase. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.