Prescription Opioid Deaths Drop in Colorado as Heroin Deaths Rise

By Paul Gaita 03/10/17

Cocaine overdose deaths are also on the rise in the state, according to new data from a preliminary report. 

Hand holding a bottle of hydrocodone.

A report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has both encouraging and dismaying news from the frontlines of the battle against opioid addiction: overdose deaths from prescription painkillers in 2016 appear to have dropped to their lowest level in six years, but fatal overdoses from heroin or cocaine rose during the same time period.

The data, culled from preliminary statistics, showed that the total number of opioid-related deaths fell by approximately 6%—from 472 deaths in 2015 to 442 deaths the following year. The most substantive drop was in deaths related to painkillers like oxycodone and hydrocodone, which fell approximately 27%—from 259 in 2015 to 188 in 2016.

The news has aspects of a bright side, especially when reflected against Colorado's ranking in a 2016 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which listed the Centennial State as America's top consumer of marijuana, cocaine, non-medical opioids and alcohol.

Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director of the Department of Public Health, said that the preliminary statistics show that Colorado is "definitely moving in the right direction," and credited the state's Prescription Drug Monitoring Program as a contributing factor in the decline. 

But Wolk also notes that the news is tempered by the increase of heroin deaths, which rose from 160 in 2015 to 197 the following year. Deaths from cocaine overdose experienced an even greater jump, rising more than 50% to 93 in that same time period.

Wolk says the growing numbers for both drugs could be due to efforts to rein in prescription painkiller abuse like the drug monitoring program, though there is not enough statistical evidence to make a conclusive statement on this element. Regardless, the spike in fatalities corroborates the fact that heroin-related deaths in Colorado have risen precipitously since 2001, with only a slight cessation in 2010.

Health researchers noted that the numbers are still preliminary and may change in the months prior to finalization. But Wolk and other health officials, along with heads of law enforcement, are concerned enough by this early data to launch new efforts to combat this rising tide in heroin deaths. "We know we have a problem," he said. "Now we really have to turn our attention to the harder piece."

To that end, Wolk said that the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention is working to release its initial recommendations via a report in the weeks to come.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.