North Carolina Experiencing Massive Increase in Drug Related Deaths, Overdoses
North Carolina, not unlike much of the nation, is in the midst of a drug overdose epidemic. It is killing people, ruining lives, and putting undue pressure on law enforcement, hospitals, and emergency responders.
According to the DHHS, unintentional poisoning deaths in North Carolina increased more than 5 times between 1999-2015. Drugs related deaths, such as those involving prescription opioids and illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine, were responsible in more than 90% of the cases.
Last year, prescription medication and illicit substance overdoses were responsible for more than 1,2000 drug related deaths in North Carolina. In 1999, that number was just 300.
No other death causes have increased as dramatically, and there are now over twice the number of yearly drug related deaths from overdoses than homicides.
The main reason for the sharp jump is the increasingly widespread use of prescription opioids, such as oxycodone, and the subsequent transition to street heroin. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 of 5 new heroin users report first becoming addicted to prescription opioids.
Their habit may have begun via a legitimate medical need, or they may have obtained unused prescription drugs from friends or family. But at some point, they were probably unable to afford or obtain the drugs in the ever-increasing amounts needed to feed their tolerance. They then felt they had no choice than to switch to heroin, which is cheaper, and also has a similar effect on the brain as many prescription opioids.
And heroin OD is now responsible for the most damage, in part due to the presence of fentanyl-laced formulations. Fentanyl is similar to heroin, but up to 50 times more powerful. In a medical setting, it’s only indicated for the treatment of severe pain and sedation. It’s also the drug that killed the artist Prince back in April.
But much of the fentanyl available is not due to prescription drug diversion – it’s being manufactured in clandestine labs. It’s cheap to make, and a little bit goes a long way. However, there’s no regulating it, and often, the user doesn’t have a clue what they are getting, or how much. Those who do seek fentanyl are likely interested in a more intense high, or have developed a huge tolerance to straight heroin itself.
Fortunately, not everyone who overdoses on heroin will die. The use of naloxone (Narcan) has saved thousands of lives nationwide. Last November, the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition reported that over 5,000 lives have been saved by naloxone in North Carolina alone.
Just imagine what the number of drug related deaths would look like if it were not for the availability of this drug…
Naloxone can effectively reverse the effects of an overdose, acting in just minutes, and hallt life-threatening central nervous system depression and other symptoms.
However, it doesn’t save everyone, and those exposed to fentanyl are at a greater risk for ending up at a point of no return.
The drastic increases in overdoses, even if non-fatal, has put increased stress on hospitals.
According to the DHHS, hospitalizations from medication and drug overdoses increased to more than 4,500 in 2014, reflecting a 72% in the last ten years.
North Carolina vs. The Rest of the Country
The opioid epidemic is worse in North Carolina that many other states. Remember what I said about the majority of heroin users starting after prescription drug addiction? Well, according to the CDC, there are 97 prescriptions for opioid painkillers in North Carolina for every 100 persons. That’s nearly one prescription for each person in the state.
The effect of this is not that every single person, obviously, has a prescription. What is does mean is that many patients are either receiving multiple prescriptions from physicians in any given year, or they are doctor-shopping in order to obtain additional prescriptions from different providers.
It also means that doctors are probably still writing way too many prescriptions in general.
The amount of available opioids has also contributed to a glut in the diversion market. That is, unused opioids are being given or sold to friends, family, and acquaintances. According to the CDC, among prescription opioids used for non-medical purposes, over half were obtained by a friend or relative.
The Good News
Hopefully, the state could soon see a decline in drug related deaths, however. Last summer, Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill which will allow anyone in the state to buy naloxone without a prescription. Thus, users, friends, and family could have the powerful anti-overdose drug on hand, rather than being forced to wait for emergency responders.
This action follows another order from 2013 that allowed police officers to carry the drug. Additionally, the governor signed a 911 Good Samaritan law, which will give some immunity to persons who call for help during an overdose incident. That is, if small amounts of drug or paraphernalia are found at an emergency scene, users will not be charged or prosecuted. Thus, users no longer need to fear criminal charges if they call for help.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology