Nationwide, the number of overdose deaths from synthetic opioids surged 72 percent from 2014 to 2015. According to new data recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 states reported significant jumps in overdose deaths from heroin and prescription painkiller abuse.
"Too many Americans are feeling the devastation of the opioid crisis either from misuse of prescription opioids or use of illicit opioids," said Dr. Tom Frieden, head of the CDC, as cited by KRQE. "Urgent action is needed to help health care providers treat pain safely and treat opioid use disorder effectively, support law enforcement strategies to reduce the availability of illicit opiates, and support states to develop and implement programs that can save lives."
Just in 2015, drug overdoses killed 52,000 people, and nearly 66 percent of those deaths resulted from abuse of prescription or illegal opioids. Over 9,500 people died from synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Legal painkillers like Oxycontin and Vicodin saw a four percent increase, resulting in 17,536 overdose deaths last year.
Sixteen states saw a significant rise in death rates associated with synthetic opioids, per the CDC report. New York overdose deaths went up nearly 136 percent, while Connecticut's rate increased 126 percent. Illinois reported a similar spike of 120 percent.
When looking specifically at heroin overdose deaths, 11 states showed alarming increases. South Carolina reported a rise of 57 percent, while North Carolina recorded a 46 percent jump from 2014 to 2015.
Two synthetic opioids, fentanyl, and tramadol, are likely responsible for the nationwide gain in drug overdose deaths. Fentanyl, the drug linked to the overdose death of pop star Prince, is roughly 50 times more powerful than heroin.
In the last six years, deaths from heroin alone have quadrupled. For the first time, more people died from heroin overdoses than were killed by gun violence. Last year, 12,979 people were killed by guns, while 12,989 deaths resulted from heroin abuse.
Health experts blame the increase in overdose deaths on America's ever-growing dependency on prescription painkillers. Now that lawmakers and various agencies are putting stricter limitations on painkillers, more and more users are turning to cheaper and more potent illegal opioids like heroin.
The current laws and restrictions may be partially fueling the opioid overdose epidemic. Drug policy reformers believe criminalization keeps users from asking for help with addiction.
"Criminalization drives people to the margins and dissuades them from getting help," said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, as reported by Seacoastonline.com. "It drives a wedge between people who need help and the services they need. Because of criminalization and stigma, people hide their addictions from others."
To combat the growing number of opioid-related overdoses, the CDC has recommended the federal government take some serious action, including drug policy changes based on what is working and what is not. The agency also encouraged open communication with the Chinese government to implement measures that would stop the importation of illegal and hard to trace synthetic opioids.
On July 12, dozens of people in Brooklyn, NY, were treated by emergency responders after calls came in reporting several people had collapsed on the street. Eyewitnesses described the victims as being "zombielike." After analyzing blood and urine samples, the cause of the so-called zombie outbreak was overdoses from a synthetic opioid named AB-FUBINACA, or AK-47 24 Karat Gold as it is known on the street.
The synthetic opioid is 85 times more potent than marijuana, according to a report from CNN. Experts believe the drug was likely synthesized in a lab in a foreign country, then illegally imported into the U.S. to dealers and sold to willing buyers.
Over the next five years, $1 billion will be spent by the federal government to fight the opioid overdose epidemic. However, if changes are made to the Affordable Care Act under the incoming Trump administration, some may find it difficult to get medical assistance and effective drug treatment.
The CDC report on synthetic opioid overdose deaths indicates that drug addiction affects more people than previously thought. While most states saw an increase in overdose deaths, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Virginia actually experienced a decrease.
[Featured Image by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]