Even as the opioid crisis fueled overdose deaths across the nation, the number of Californians who succumbed to these and other drugs has remained stable, new federal data show.
Deaths from opiates, cocaine and methamphetamines shot up by 35 percent in the United States between the year ending in May 2015 and that ending in May 2017, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But in California and several other Western states, there were no significant changes in the number of deaths, and some states even saw small reductions. In Utah and Oregon, the number of deaths dropped by 3 percent. In Wyoming, it fell 36 percent.
About 4,600 Californians died in each of the two years that were compared, according to the data.
One likely factor, experts say, is that fentanyl, a potent and deadly form of synthetic opioid, has not saturated the market in California and other Western states the way it has in parts of the East Coast and Midwest — at least not yet.
“States that are seeing relatively little fentanyl in their supply, their overdose rates are more or less remaining flat,” said Leo Beletsky, associate professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University.
But states that have been flooded by fentanyl are seeing overdose rates rise, he said.
Fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, is being mixed with heroin and other street drugs in some regions of the country, sometimes without the knowledge of drug users. Even small amounts can lead to a deadly overdose.
Fentanyl killed rock legend Prince in April 2016.
Pennsylvania and Florida saw massive increases in overdose deaths — 83 percent and 85 percent respectively in the two years compared.
Lindsay LaSalle, senior staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for less criminalization of drug use, said some states with stable death rates not only have less fentanyl, but they have adopted policies to protect the health of drug users.
“California has for many decades embraced harm-reduction strategies” that may be limiting drug deaths, LaSalle said. These include needle exchanges that provide drug users with information about how to avoid overdoses, and programs that distribute the overdose reversal drug naloxone to opiate-dependent people, she said.
In Washington state, where overdose deaths increased by 5 percent, more treatment options and investments in housing and employment may have diverted people from drug abuse and avoided more deaths, she said.
Most other states rely primarily on law enforcement to control drug use, LaSalle added.
Since November 2015, 25 states have passed laws that increase penalties related to the sale and distribution of fentanyl, according to the alliance. Florida implemented a law last year that allows drug dealers to be charged with murder for selling fentanyl that causes a death.
However, the criminal justice approach “really has not shown to be effective in the long term,” Beletsky said.
The CDC cautioned that the statistics for the year ending in May 2017 are provisional and could underestimate the problem.
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