In Ohio, Signs of a Shifting Drug Crisis

Published by U.S. News

Psychostimulants such as meth were involved in 12 percent of unintentional overdose deaths in Ohio in 2017, researchers said.(Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images)

Overdose deaths involving meth and other stimulants rose dramatically in the Buckeye State between 2010 and 2017, according to a recent data analysis that underscores the evolving nature of the nation's current drug crisis.

"We’re seeing a new and dangerous trend here in Ohio that is also manifesting around the country,” says Orman Hall, author of the analysis and an Ohio University executive in residence. "We have seen a plateau effect in 2017 in terms of total (drug) overdose deaths, but interestingly, what we are beginning to see is an uptick in the number of mentions for psychostimulants, which includes methamphetamine, and cocaine."

The number of unintentional overdose deaths involving psychostimulants – a category encompassing prescription drugs like Ritalin and Adderall as well as methamphetamine – grew exponentially in Ohio from nine deaths in 2010 to 509 in 2017, marking an increase of more than 5,000 percent. The analysis by the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health, a collaboration between Ohio University and the University of Toledo, also found that nearly 80 percent of unintentional overdose deaths involving a psychostimulant included an opioid as well, and that more than 70 percent involved the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Overall, psychostimulants were involved in 12 percent of unintentional overdose deaths in the state in 2017, researchers said.

For the analysis, researchers examined death certificate data from the Ohio Department of Health and tabulated certain types of drugs found in people who died of an unintentional overdose, though no primary cause of death was noted in the data used.

The study also showed that the number of people who died of an unintentional overdose in Ohio and had cocaine in their system rose from 212 in 2010 to 1,520 in 2017, a year in which 32 percent of all unintentional overdose deaths in the state involved cocaine in some amount.

Similar to psychostimulants, more than 80 percent of cocaine-involved overdose deaths in 2017 also involved an opioid.

"I think that the number of overdose deaths specifically attributed to opioids has been such an overwhelming problem that it has distracted us from potential trends in the data, and clearly, methamphetamines and cocaine are on the rise," Hall says.

At a more local level, Wayne County, at 17.2 percent, experienced the highest percentage of unintentional overdose deaths involving a psychostimulant over the time period analyzed. Pike County, at 14.5 percent, and Wyandot County, at 14.3 percent, had the second- and third-highest rates in Ohio, respectively.

"Looking at the data, most of the counties that are in dark blue on the psychostimulant map are rural, with the exception of Butler County, so the vast majority are rural and they’re predominantly white," Hall says. "Methamphetamine appears to be more available in Appalachia and other rural counties."

Dennis Lowe, commander of a multijurisdictional law enforcement task force that serves Ohio's Athens, Fairfield and Hocking counties, says the results echo what he and his colleagues have seen on the ground in recent years.

"We’ve really seen a shift in our work from opiates to methamphetamine in our population," Lowe says. "Now, that’s not to say that opioids aren’t still being used, because we see that they are and we certainly still see overdoses and overdose death. But ... opiate use and trafficking has really gone underground."

Lowe says a transition from meth produced in domestic, homemade labs to a purer, cheaper product pushed by Mexican cartels into the local market occurred between 2015 and 2017. Officers can buy a gram of methamphetamine that once cost $100 or more for between $25 to $40 today, Lowe says.

And with a surge of legislation aimed at curbing the opioid crisis and providing treatment for those addicted to opioids, Lowe says the resources available to address other drugs proliferating in the market are limited.

"Law enforcement and first responders across the country, I think we’re all really dealing with this meth problem," Lowe says. "There’s a ton of money coming down from the federal government that’s directed toward opiates and the opiate response, and at the local level we really have moved on to methamphetamines. In some cases, those dollars are tied to specific opiate issues, so we can't use those same dollars for treatment and rehab and prevention programs, or even enforcement efforts, on methamphetamine."

Hall agrees.

"This is not necessarily a new trend, but I think from the standpoint of public health policy, it’s something that we have largely missed because of our preoccupation with opioids, which is obviously causing more carnage from a death standpoint, and will continue to do that for some time," he says.

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