Heroin Is No Longer The Deadliest Opioid In America

By Kelly Burch 09/06/17

Heroin led to nearly 16,000 deaths last year but another popular opioid surpassed that staggering number.

ambulance racing through rainy streets

Drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl doubled during 2016, accounting for 25% more deaths than heroin, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) earlier this week.

The CDC data showed that 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses during 2016, with 20,100 of those deaths attributed to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. By comparison, heroin was involved in 15,400 overdose deaths, according to a New York Times analysis

The data breaks down overdose deaths by state, which shows how unevenly drug deaths are spread throughout the country, including in some unexpected places. In Delaware, for example, overdose rates rose 71% between 2016 and 2017 (with 309 deaths during the year). Maryland saw an increase of 67% for a total of 2,171 overdose deaths. 

Of the 22 states that reported data only Nebraska, Washington and Wyoming saw a decrease in the number of overdose deaths over the last year. 

Fentanyl has been getting more attention as the drug has become a widespread part of the heroin supply around the country. Last year in Massachusetts, for example, 69% of people who died of an opioid overdose (and had a toxicology screen) had fentanyl in their systems, according to the Boston Business Journal. In Ohio, fentanyl killed nearly 2,400 people in 2016, double the number from the year before, according to Cincinnati.com.

“It truly is everywhere,” Barbara Carreno, a spokeswoman for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, told USA Today. The agency has worked this summer to educate first responders about the dangers of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids that are strong enough to cause a person to overdose, and has called the drug “a global threat.” 

Despite the attention that fentanyl has been getting as a potentially fatal drug, law enforcement officials say there is a demand for it among drug users, and that drug dealers recognize that selling fentanyl can boost profits. “You can make it as strong as you want, and in bulk and fast,” said Tim Reagan, a DEA agent in Cincinnati.

Hence, law enforcement officials expect fentanyl seizures to become even more common by the end of this year. “I expect that in fiscal year 2017, the numbers of seizures in the mail and express consignment environment (such as FedEx and UPS) will be much higher than they were last year,” said Robert Perez, an acting commissioner with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency.

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