Drug deaths hit a record at 332 in King County last year, with two-thirds of them opioid-related. Heroin deaths dropped slightly, while deaths related to other drugs including benzodiazepines and fentanyl increased.
Drug-use deaths hit a record of 332 in King County last year, with two-thirds of those opioid-related overdoses, according to a report released Thursday by University of Washington researchers.
Heroin deaths dropped slightly, from 132 in 2015 to 118 last year. But fatal overdoses related to prescription opioids and fentanyl, a potent painkiller now being made illegally, increased.
The decline in heroin-related deaths is not very notable, said Caleb Banta-Green, lead author of the report, because the increase in fentanyl-related deaths made up for it.
“The bottom line is opioid addiction is the overall driver of deaths. People will use whatever opioid they can get. It’s just that which one they’re buying is changing a bit,” said Banta-Green, principal research scientist at the UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute (ADAI).
President Donald Trump officially declared the opioid crisis a “national emergency” in an announcement Thursday while holding a security briefing Thursday at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Trump said the drug crisis afflicting the nation is a “serious problem the likes of which we have never had” and said he’d be drawing up documents to formalize the declaration soon.
Banta-Green sees hope in local developments. A survey he conducted on opioid addicts showed that the vast majority of them want help, he said. But for most of them it needs to be “low-barrier” treatment with medications such as buprenorphine, he said, which satisfies their physical dependency but allows them to work, drive and function like non-addicts.
Five pilot treatment programs have been developed in Seattle and four are at full capacity, Banta-Green said. Federal funds are expected to ramp up programs, he said.
Even then, we still need to reduce the stigma associated with substance-use disorders, increase demand for treatment, and ensure adequate capacity, he said.
And despite the decline in heroin deaths, there are still troubling indications of the drug’s grip in King County.
Admissions to publicly funded treatment programs for heroin still outpaced those for any other substance in King County last year, according to the report. Heroin is the most common drug mentioned during calls by young adults to the Washington state Recovery Helpline.
Safe-injection sites overseen by medical professionals equipped with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone can also prevent fatal overdoses.
But a proposal to create two injection sites in King County, which would be the first in the U.S., have run into growing opposition.
Deaths caused by methamphetamine, cocaine and benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that includes Valium, Xanax and Ativan, increased. The 98 methamphetamine-related deaths last year marked a dramatic increase from 20 such deaths reported in 2011.
In 2015, drug deaths totaled 320 in King County, then a record number.
Many drug deaths involve two or more substances and the medical examiner doesn’t denote the primary-drug cause, Banta-Green said. Hence, the number of deaths attributed to different drugs in King County is greater than the total number of deaths.
The report counts deaths due to acute drug use, not deaths caused by drug-related injuries, infections or accidents.
Heroin-related deaths peaked at 156 in 2014. Prescription opioid deaths peaked at 164 in 2009, according to annual reports by the UW’s ADAI.
Fentanyl and counterfeit versions of it are showing up in several forms, including fake oxycodone pills and synthetic fentanyl manufactured illegally, Banta-Green said.
In overall drug-use trends, cocaine use appears down in King County and marijuana use was statistically unchanged among high-school sophomores over the last decade, with 14 percent reporting past-month use last year compared to 17 percent in 2006.
For the first time, pot-related analysis of wastewater testing in Seattle was available. Testing was done for one week in 2016 and the level of carboxy-THC, a residual of the chief psychoactive component of cannabis, in Seattle wastewater appears to be among the highest detected in the world.
Seattle is the only U.S. city participating in an international analysis, according to the UW researchers, who noted that wastewater testing for drugs is an evolving science and that analyzing THC “can be difficult to interpret and compared over time and between locations.”