The New Jersey State Medical Examiner’s Office reported that in 2015, the number of deaths caused by drug overdose leaped by almost 22 percent. Why? For the most part, the increase was due to increased use of heroin and fentanyl, both opiate substances.
Though rates of drug overdose deaths caused by use and abuse of opiates have steadily risen in most parts of the country in the past few years, the numbers in New Jersey suggested that progress was being made across the state. The hope was that the downward trajectory would continue, but unfortunately, in 2015, overdose deaths in general as well as those caused by opiate use and abuse spiked significantly.
Specifically, New Jersey overdose stats were reported as follows:
- In 2012: 1,223 overdose deaths, 596 of which were caused by heroin
- In 2013: 1,336 overdose deaths, 749 of which were caused by heroin
- In 2014: 1,304 overdose deaths, 706 of which were caused by heroin
- In 2015: 1,587 overdose deaths, 918 of which were caused by heroin use
It is very likely that rates of drug overdose deaths and opiate overdose deaths specifically continued to rise in 2016. What can we do to prevent the continuation of this trend in 2017?
Fentanyl and Heroin
One cause for alarm is not just the fact that overdose deaths in general increased by 22 percent but that the number of deaths caused by heroin increased by 30 percent and the number of fentanyl-related deaths tripled in 2015. Even in areas where prevention efforts were strong, rates of overdose were high, suggesting that they might have been even higher without the use of these interventions. For example, in Camden County, law enforcement reported using naloxone to reverse 115 overdoses that might otherwise have been fatal, yet still the rate of overdose deaths increased by 38 percent in that county.
Heroin has increasingly been the cause of overdose deaths due to its high rate of purity. Black market heroin is now pure enough to be snorted or smoked, allowing users to bypass the use of needles, previously a deterrent for suburban and upper-class users. This has made the transition from use of prescription painkillers, which are far more expensive and difficult to come by compared to street heroin, that much easier and more prevalent.
In order to be competitive on the black market and ensure that their product was the strongest and therefore the most sought after by customers, many drug dealers began lacing their dope with fentanyl. This synthetic opiate is 50-100 times more potent than morphine, often turning the “normal” dose for users into an overdose. Because consumers cannot tell the difference between heroin that is laced and heroin that contains no fentanyl, there is no way to fight against the problem other than to avoid heroin use altogether. The best way to do that consistently and effectively is to undergo treatment when addiction is driving use of the drug.
Connecting with Treatment
Unfortunately, access to treatment is problematic throughout New Jersey and across the country. Those who acknowledge the need for treatment and seek it out often find that there is no space available at nearby treatment programs or that their insurance companies will not work with programs that do have space or cover the cost of medications that will help them avoid relapse. Many ultimately overdose while on waiting lists or after giving up on trying to come up with the funds to pay for treatment with cash when their insurance companies will not help them cover the cost.
In 2017, the hope is that a large portion of the more than $1 billion in the federal budget allocated for management of the opiate addiction epidemic across the country will go toward increasing access to treatment. Connecting people in need with life-changing treatment will help them to create positive change in their lives that lasts for the long-term. It will be important in the new year to pay attention to how those funds are spent and to be actively vocal with state and local legislators, providing accountability as changes are made in access to addiction treatment.
Whether you help a loved one to connect with treatment or reach out for treatment yourself, let 2017 be the year you help your entire family to begin the process of healing from addiction.