Drug abuse trends: Deaths down, with an insidious twist

I wrote this story for KPLU earlier this week and I’m sharing it here, as well.


You’ve probably heard the under-world of drug abuse has taken on a new face over the past decade, with the rise of prescription pill addicts.

The story is more nuanced than that. But before looking at the nuance, here are a few surprising facts and a disturbing trend.

by Ashley Rose/Flickr

  • Overdose deaths in King County dropped last year, from 161 to 130. And the most recent state-wide data, from 2009, also showed a drop to 324.
  • The top 5 drugs involved in King County’s overdoses were, in order: Prescription opiates (painkillers)-130; Anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications -79; Alcohol -62; Heroin -50; Cocaine -46
  • The number of dirty needles exchanged for clean ones in King County more than doubled between 2007 and 2010

These figures were compiled from various sources by Caleb Banta-Green, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. He’s presenting the work this week to a panel of the National Institute on Drug Abuse‚Äôs Community Epidemiology Work Group, representing 21 major cities, which is meeting in Seattle.

From painkillers to heroin?

He also told me that his biggest concern, looking forward, is what happens to the people who get addicted to painkillers, such as oxycodone.

“Prescription type opiates are pretty potent, but they’re also quite expensive. Heroin is much cheaper. So, my concern is that as people run out of resources to afford prescription type drugs, they’re going to need to move on to heroin.”

And sure enough, nearly 40% of heroin addicts interviewed at a treatment clinic in King County say they started with prescription drugs first. Other data, from the state crime lab, show drug busts for heroin are on the rise in a number of smaller counties (particularly on the Olympic peninsula and in Whatcom County). Heroin abuse used to be confined to Washington’s cities — primarily Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, Everett and Yakima. Now, it’s appearing in small towns and rural areas.

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