Meth Deaths Hit Record High in West Virginia, Fentanyl Said to Play Role

By Kelly Burch 12/06/17

State health officials say methamphetamine laced with fentanyl is fueling the death rate.

woman looking at baggie of drugs

Fatal drug overdoses caused by methamphetamine have risen 500% in West Virginia over four years, topping out at record numbers during 2017.

One hundred and twenty-nine people have died from overdoses involving meth in 2017, according to the Charleston Gazette Mail, and that number is expected to increase substantially as public health officials finish collecting data. In 2014, just 21 people died from meth overdoses in the state.

The trend is related to the opioid epidemic since about half of the deaths involved fentanyl as well, according to West Virginia Public Radio. Officials said that some meth users may not know that their drugs contain the powerful opioid, making them more susceptible to overdoses.

“A lot of these people don’t know what they’re getting,” Chad Napier, prevention officer with the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, told the Gazette Mail. “We’re seeing the meth cut with fentanyl, so that’s increasing the meth [overdose] numbers, I believe.”

The surge in overdoses can in part be explained by the fact that locally made “shake and bake” meth has been replaced by crystal meth trafficked in from Mexico. The crystal meth is often cut with heroin, fentanyl and other opioids. “They’re mixing stimulants with depressants,” said Napier.

That increases the danger of using meth. “We’re seeing a lot more meth, and it’s a different kind of meth than we were seeing five or six years ago,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, the state health commissioner. “There’s a push from the cartels to get these drugs out there.”

West Virginia officials have also seen an increase in deaths from other street drugs, including cocaine, which has killed 126 people so far this year. In 2014 only 57 people died from overdoses involving cocaine.

West Virginia has been at the forefront of the opioid epidemic with the highest opioid overdose rate in the country in 2015. The state has high rates of unemployment, which are believed to contribute to drug abuse. In addition, doctors in the state write more opioid prescriptions and prescriptions for higher-dose, longer-term opioid use, both of which have been tied to increased risk for addiction.

The state has taken steps to combat drug overdoses, including distributing 8,000 doses of the opioid reversal drug naloxone.

“We have seen a significant and steady increase in all drug overdose deaths in West Virginia over the last several years. Unfortunately, based upon the trend we are seeing, the number of overdose deaths has not yet peaked,” Gupta said earlier this year.

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