CINCINNATI – Ohio law enforcement officials have seen a “major increase” in fentanyl, an opiate that is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin, state health officials announced Thursday.
There were 502 fentanyl-related overdose deaths statewide last year, according to the Ohio Department of Health data. There had been just 84 fentanyl-related deaths the year before.
Hamilton County led the state with fentanyl-related overdoses deaths with 80. Butler was fourth with 49 and Clermont was seventh with 22.
Drug users may not have known that fentanyl was combined with other drugs, like heroin, contributing to the rise in unintentional drug overdose deaths, officials said.
Ohio overdose deaths overall rose from 2,110 in 2013 to 2,482 last year.
“At the same time we are experiences positive progress in our fight against drug addiction, such as fewer opiates being dispensed and a decrease in high doses of opiates, we are also seeing some individuals begin to use more dangerous drugs to achieve more intense effects,” Mark Hurst, medical director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, said. “As they build up tolerance to drugs they’re using, they may progress, for example, from prescription pain pills, to heroin, to fentanyl, which is often cut into heroin.”
State officials said various agencies were partnering to expand their fight against opiate abuse. Last year, 40 million fewer opiate prescriptions were dispensed to Ohio patients compared to the year before.
Also, the Ohio Automated Rx Reporting System helped decrease the number of patients “doctor shopping” for opiates and other drugs from more than 3,100 in 2009 to less than 1,000 last year. State regulations will ensure that greater percentages of opiate prescribers are registered in the system going ahead.
“We are committed to aggressively fighting opiate abuse in Ohio, including the rise of fentanyl,” Andrea Boxill, Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services deputy director, said. “We’re building on the many good things we are already going by pursuing new initiatives to strengthen drug abuse prevention, expand efforts to control access to opiates and continue to enhance access to treatment, but much more needs to be done to address this new crisis facing Ohio.”
Dr. Mary DiOrio, Medical Director with the Ohio Department of Health, said that the surprising power of the drug leads many to underestimate its strength.
“We know that this drug is being mixed in with heroin," she said. "If someone doesn’t know that and they are using the same amount of heroin they might have been using previously, this incredibly powerful opiate might lead to death."
She said that there is a strong need to use earlier education programs to push potential addicts into treatment programs.
Mary Kheun, CEO and President with the Center for Addiction Services in Cincinnati, said that Hamilton’s high overdose rate is partially a reflection of the changing demographic of addiction victims.
“The patients we’re seeing tend primarily white and young, in 20s and 30s,” Kheun said. “It’s really a demographic change that’s happened over the past 10 to 15 years.”
The report pointed out that painkiller prescriptions have fallen over the past year, but Kheun said over-prescription is only part of the problem.
She said that often times those painkillers are just an impetus for moving onto more serious drugs like heroin. That’s when overdoses begin to occur.
DiOrio said that unlike other opiates, Fentanyl is more often distributed illicitly rather than being diverted from a prescription.
“We’re not exactly sure where the drug is coming from. We’re working with law enforcement to try to fully understand that,” she said.
State officials have been working with the Department of Health to fight against these increased overdoses.
They’ve tackled the over-prescribing issue by distributing warnings and information to clinicians and emergency rooms that treat patients with chronic pain.
Earlier this month, a bill was introduced to the legislature aimed at making tamper-proof pills more accessible.
“We appreciate what the governor and legislature have done on this issue in shutting down the pill mills, but there’s still more to be done,” Kheun said.