Drug overdoses are the leading cause of injury deaths in the US, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reported in its annual National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA), which was released on Wednesday.
“Overdose deaths, particularly from prescription drugs and heroin, have reached epidemic levels,” the acting administrator of the DEA, Chuck Rosenberg, wrote in a statement.
The report indicates that there has been a slight decline in the number of people who report abusing prescription medications, although that number still exceeds the number of users of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, ecstasy (MDMA), and phencyclidine (PCP) combined.
The numbers also show that the decreased number of prescription opioid users corresponds to an equal increase in the number of heroin users.
Experts think opioid prescription drug abusers start using heroin because it is more easily available and cheaper than prescription drugs — heroin costs about one-fifth that of most prescription opioids — and new, inexperienced heroin initiates who are switching from one to the other may be a possible reason for the increase in the death linked to heroin overdoses.
Other reasons for the increase might be the high purity of certain batches reaching the market, which could lead to “accidental” overdoses and highly toxic adulterants being added to heroin. Heroin addicts who’ve stopped using heroin for a while and start again are also highly at risk of overdosing as their tolerance has decreased.
Some parts of the country are more adversly affected than others by the heroin epidemic, with the Northeast and several areas in the Midwest being most at risk.
Washington County in Pennsylvania, where the population barely surpasses 200,000, is extremly adversely affected. There, every day between five and eight of its inhabitants overdose on heroin. In August, 16 people overdosed in just 24 hours.
Illegal drugs coming into the country
One part of the report concentrates on the origin of illegal drugs coming into the country, and the findings are unequivocal:
“The most significant drug trafficking organisations operating in the United States today are the dangerous and highly sophisticated Mexican transnational criminal organisations (TCOs) that continue to be the principal suppliers of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana,” Rosenberg wrote in his statement.
The report states that no other group comes close to being able to challenge the Mexican drug cartels, who smuggled an estimated 225,000 pounds of heroin into the US last year.
One of the reasons the Mexican drug cartels are so powerful, the report claims, is the variety of drugs that they import and sell at an inflated price in the US. They are also extremely well informed and organised, according to the DEA, using established routes and distribution channels.
Overdoses and death
According to the report, 120 people in the US die each day as the result of an overdose and most of of these deaths are attributable to prescription opioids. Deaths from prescription opioid overdoses are more numerous than those for cocaine and heroin combined.
“Drug overdose deaths have become the leading cause of injury death in the United States, surpassing the number of deaths by motor vehicles and by firearms every year since 2008,” Rosenberg wrote.
Because of the risk that prescription opioid (CPD) users are more likely to move on to heroin (we previously reported that people who are addicted to painkillers are 40 times as likely to get hooked on heroin, according to a CDC report), and the high number of CPD overdoses, CPD and heroin were both ranked as “the most significant drug threats to the United States,” by the DEA report.
To establish its findings, the DEA considered and analysed an array of factors such as drug arrests, drug purity, and laboratory analyses. It also considered information about the involvement of criminal organisations and survey data provided by 1,105 state and local law enforcement agencies.
New dangers and old classics
The report also mentions one of the newest, most devastating drug on the market: Fentanyl.
The synthetic opioid is “approximately 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, and 25 to 40 times more potent than heroin,” and was initially developed for cancer patients. It’s now being used in combination with heroin.
In September in Chicago, 75 people overdosed over a three-day span. The overdoses were linked to a batch of heroin suspected to be laced with fentanyl. Between 2013 and early 2015, over 700 deaths in the US were linked to fentanyl and similar drugs.
Cocaine use has steadily declined over the last ten years and users are also starting to switch to methamphetamine because cocaine has become harder to come by since its availability started to decline in 2007, according to the DEA report.
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