The amount of drug related deaths in King County in Washington State has hit an all-time high. Nearly all the deaths in 2016 are attributed to opioids. This particular group of drugs is responsible for 75% of drug overdose fatalities. Drugs like meth cocaine, benzodiazepines make up some of the statistics also. A large percentage of the death overdoses occurred when two or more drugs were combined. The University of Washington did research, finding that benzodiazepines like Valium, Xanax, and Ativan caused more deaths than previous years. They also found that opioid overdose deaths are not going away, people are just switching up what kind they abuse. Opioid-related deaths have increased although heroin deaths were less. It’s the prescription opioids and fentanyl that caused the most deaths in 2016.
What are the Statistics Around Drug Related Deaths in King County?
- There were 98 meth related deaths that occurred in 2016. This is a major increase from the 20 deaths that occurred in 2011.
- In 2015, there were 320 drug related deaths in King County in the State of Washington. Many of these deaths were found to include more than two substances. This creates a challenge for medical examiners to determine which drug was the primary cause of death. In 2016, the death toll for overdose deaths grew.
- Heroin-related deaths were at their peak with 156 people dying in 2014. Prescription opioid deaths were at their highest in 2009 at 164 casualties. Now fentanyl and other counterfeit versions are being sold which is causing total uncertainty of actual doses and chemicals.
- In 2016, there was greater reporting of non-pharmaceutical fentanyl. This allowed studies to find that 17 people had died with the compounds present in the drug that were previously unidentified.
- The amount of death attributed to different drugs would actually be greater than the number of deaths. This is because the report can only consider deaths due to acute drug use. It also doesn’t include the injuries related to drugs, infections, or drug-related accidents.
- Treatment admission in 2016 were pretty much the same as in previous years. Admissions were much lower than 2011/2012 drug overdose deaths that cocaine had caused.
- Prescription opioids are somewhat down from the peaks that occurred in 2010. These prescription opioids are elevating in overdose related deaths. They are responsible (along with heroin) as being the most common drugs identified in death by overdose.
- The number of overdose deaths from drugs surpass the 2015 fatalities by 14. 2016 was the seventh straight year that drug overdoses have increased.
How Many Drug-Related Deaths Occurred in 2016?
In total, there were 332 drug related deaths in King County (WA State) in 2016. The majority of them were opioid related overdoses. A study done by the University of Washington found that heroin declined from 132 people in 2015 to 115 in 2016. While it was good news that heroin-related deaths declined, fentanyl-related deaths made up for it. Fentanyl is an illegal painkiller that is extremely lethal. It is laced in heroin sometimes but is far more powerful. Someone taking the same amount of heroin as normal will more often die from overdose if fentanyl is an ingredient.
Opioid Addiction is the Main Cause for Drug Related Deaths in King County
Banta-Green, the principal research scientist at the UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute (ADAI) has found that opioid addiction is the main contributor to drug overdose deaths in King County, Washington. The study found that people will use whatever opioid they can get their hands on. What kind of opioid is the most easily accessible is the current drug of choice. This explains the switch up from one opioid to another. They are also mixed with other drugs like Meth, which is also contributing to overdose deaths. In 2016, just over half of the meth drug overdoses leading to death involved an opioid.
Problems Addressed in 2016
King County, Washington is not alone when it comes to the sharp increase of heroin and prescription opiates abuse. The availability of treatment has not been able to keep up with the rapid rate of addiction. In early 2016, the King County Executive, Dow Constantine, hosted a conference. They announced that they were putting together a task force to help fight against heroin and prescription opiate addiction. Experts in the field came together to discuss how they could reduce opiate addiction in the hopes of reducing overdose leading to death. Task Force meeting occurred for a six month period which included hosting community meetings to gain more front line knowledge. Sadly, while they were forming this report, King County suffered the worst loss of lives due to drugs in any given year.
The Opioid Crisis, a National Emergency
President Donald Trump declared that the opioid crisis in the US is a national emergency. He said that the drug crisis is causing a serious problem that’s never been seen before. He has talked of plans to formulate a declaration on the matter soon. If he does, there will be greater funding for the programs to help fight against the opioid crisis. Local developments are being made too. Banta-Green conducted a survey which proves most people addicted to opioid want help. It was determined that most participants would need medication assisted treatment like buprenorphine. The physical dependency is satisfied but make it possible for people to integrate back into life. They can work, drive, and be a part of society once again. There are five pilot treatment programs in Seattle and federal funds are expected. Banta-Green also found that it’s important to reduce stigma that are associated with substance abuse. There needs to be more treatment options available with room for anyone who is willing to seek help.
The Kind of Opioids Found to Be Causing the Biggest Threat
As discussed, most of the death from drug overdoses in King County included opioids. The type of opioids that make up this statistic include synthetic and opiates deriving from poppies. Synthetic opioids like oxycodone and methadone were the main culprits. Opiate from poppies included heroin and morphine. The data in the ADAI study includes data on the synthetic opiate fentanyl. There were more deaths linked to this drug than any year before it. A King County Medical Examiner said that fentanyl is a major concern. It is unknown on why fentanyl deaths are so prevalent. The examiner said that there are far less synthetic opioid deaths in the Midwest as there is more prevalence toward poppy-based opiates like heroin.
Which Drugs are Most Commonly Being Overdosed on in WA State?
Heroin and morphine are the top contributors in overdose deaths in the State of WA. Although heroin deaths have been reduced, it still causes major problems in King County. Publicly funded treatment centers can’t keep up with the amount of addicts looking for help. Those who can afford it or have coverage will go to a private rehabilitation center. Heroin is still the most common drug mentioned when young adults call a WA state recovery helpline. Heroin and morphine are still responsible for the most fatal overdoses regardless of their decline in use. There were 113 people that died in King County which equates to 31% of all drug overdose deaths in the area. Morphine gets grouped together with heroin because the body converts heroin into morphine. The autopsy will test positive for morphine even if the drug taken was heroin. WA State doesn’t have Chinese heroin but primarily Mexican Black Tar which is usually smuggled in through Vancouver, BC. Officials don’t know how fentanyl is making its way to King County but they believe it might be domestic labs. The other thought is Chinese synthetic opioids are brought into Canada and then smuggled across the border.
Why are Opioids/Opiates the Most Likely Drugs to Overdose On?
Firstly, opioids are a commonly abused drug. Secondly, the nature of how opioids affect the brain cause you to stop breathing. Drugs like meth or benzodiazepines aren’t as risky generally. When you take opioids, a small part in the brain that regulates breathing is interfered with. You breathe much more slowly. Opioid overdose occurs when you take so much that your respiratory system stops altogether.
Prevention of Drug Overdose Deaths
Banta-Green believes that there are four ways to help fight against opioid overdose deaths in WA State. Firstly, having pilot treatment programs that include buprenorphine should be available. This is already happening but they believe that federal funding will help them get these programs fully developed for addicts. The need to reduce stigma that people connect substance abuse disorders with. To help people understand that addiction is a disease so they can help an addict is an important step. There are methods of interventions that reduce stigma which has shown to be helpful. Educating addicts and public alike can help bridge the gap between addicts and people without addictions.
Task Force Recommends Supervised Injection Sites
The task force for King County, WA was made up of experts of heroin and opioid abuse. Their recommendation to avoid further overdose deaths was to create supervised injection sites in September, 2016. Seattle’s sister city Vancouver was the first city in North America to open up a supervised drug injection site. The concern by some is that it can cause problems in the neighbourhood of the area where the site is set up. People don’t want there to be a gathering of junkies essentially. Bellevue and Federal Way voted to ban the sites in their cities while King County is working towards opening up a safe injection site. One of the advocates for a safe injection site had this to say, “We all need to recognize addiction as the chronic medical condition it is, make treatment as easy to get as heroin is and address barriers to recovery,” Duchin said in the news release.
There is No Easy Solution
Caleb Banta-Green, a research scientist with the UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute believes there is a solution to preventing further advances of deaths due to opioids. He said the solution lies in, “Increase understanding of substance-use disorders, which will reduce stigma and increase demand for treatment. Develop simple, easy-to-use processes for connecting people to care when and where they can access it. And ensure adequate treatment capacity.” The study from the University of WA was published the same week two of the largest cities in King County voted in favor of banning safe-injection sites. These sites, which would allow people to use drugs while being medically supervised are meant to prevent overdoses. In the State of WA, the King County task force strongly believes they can prevent drug-related deaths. Locals are concerned their neighborhoods will become devalued from these safe injection sites. This is proof that the stigma connected to drug use is getting in the way of people getting the help they need. The war on drugs is being lost and until people are willing to make necessary changes, nothing will improve. Next years report may supersede in the amount of drug overdose deaths.