Fentanyl, Other Synthetic Drugs Drive National Overdose Rates Up

By Keri Blakinger 08/20/18

Nearly 30,000 Americans died from overdoses stemming from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids in 2017.

hospital staff pushing a gurney down the hallway

Driven in large part by widespread opioid use, the number of drug overdoses nationwide shot up nearly 10% last year, according to preliminary federal figures. 

The U.S. clocked more than 72,000 drug fatalities in 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported last week. That’s up by more than 6,000 from the 2016 figures, bringing the tally to nearly 200 deaths a day—more than the total number of gun, car crash or HIV deaths in any single year, ever. 

But the new numbers—which represent a two-fold increase over 10 years ago—could actually be underestimating the true scope of the problem as full data from some states still isn’t in yet. 

A big chunk of the increase—nearly 50,000 fatalities—comes from opioid deaths, a category that’s more than quadrupled since 2002. An increase in cocaine fatalities is also feeding into the higher figures. 

Meanwhile heroin, painkiller, and methadone fatality figures have started to flatten out; it’s fentanyl deaths that are continuing to rise. Last year, close to 30,000 Americans died from overdoses stemming from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.

"Seventy-five percent of the deaths we get are fentanyl-related,"  Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the Ocean County, New Jersey prosecutor, told the Washington Post. "It's the heroin laced with synthetic opioids that we're getting creamed with."

The biggest increases are in some of the East Coast states already hardest hit by opioids, including Ohio, West Virginia and New Jersey. 

In part, that’s due to the geography of drug-trafficking patterns. On the East Coast, heroin typically comes in a stronger powdered form—a form more easily mixed with deadly fentanyl. But in the western part of the country, cartels bring in black tar heroin from Mexico, which is both weaker and harder to mix with fentanyl. 

"It is the 2.0 of drugs right now, the synthetics," Tom Synan, the police chief in Newtown, Ohio, told the Post

The current influx in opioid fatalities is commonly traced back to the 1990s, when drugmakers pushed addictive painkillers and doctors overprescribed them.

Over a decade later, heroin took hold again when a cheap supply reshaped the market. But in recent years, it’s the introduction of fentanyl and other powerful synthetics that has driven the crisis to a deadlier point.

And now that there’s finally been a downturn in some types of opioid fatalities, experts predict that any downward trend could be gradual given the nature of addiction and the stigma surrounding it.

“Because it’s a drug epidemic as opposed to an infectious disease epidemic like Zika, the response is slower,” University of California San Francisco professor Dan Ciccarone told the New York Times. “Because of the forces of stigma, the population is reluctant to seek care. I wouldn’t expect a rapid downturn; I would expect a slow, smooth downturn.”

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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.