The United States Drug Enforcement Administration released its annual Drug Assessment Report, shining a light on the drug epidemic that local officials say is making its presence felt here.
The annual report from the DEA did include one incredibly important bright spot. According to DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon, it’s likely that 2018 saw the first decrease in drug overdose deaths in 30 years.
Preliminary figures showed that 67,367 Americans died of drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2017, a 4% percent decline from 2017. DEA Acting Administrator Utam Dhillam attributed the decrease to a reduction in prescription drug overdose deaths.
The decrease in drug overdose deaths may have played a role in increasing overall U.S. life expectancy by 0.1 years to 78.7. The increase might be incredibly modest, but it’s the first time since 2014 that there’s been an increase at all.
Through tight prescription guidelines, the DEA and other federal agencies have sought to decrease the number of opioid prescriptions. Those changes have had an effect, with opioid prescription rates declining every year since 2011.
Minnesota has a particularly low rate of opioid prescriptions, but the state has still had its issues with the opioid crisis. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, opioid prescription overdose deaths rose by an astonishing 681% from 2000 to 2017.
Certain regions of the state, especially northern Minnesota, have been hit harder by the opioid crisis. Locally, Rice County Family Services Collaborative received a $210,000 Opioid Response grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
As the report notes, synthetic opioids have become the primary driver of the opioid crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, increased fentanyl use drove 47 percent increase in synthetic opioid-involved deaths from 2016 to 2017.
Often sold as counterfeit prescription drugs, fentanyl and similar synthetic opioids have become the deadliest illicit drugs in the U.S. From 2014 to 2017, forensic lab reports of fentanyl have increased by more than tenfold across the country.
“We’ve seen a lot of fentanyl here and I foresee continuing to see it,” said Sergeant Paul LaRoche of the Rice County Drug Task Force. “It’s a very dangerous drug because often times, other drugs are laced with it and the user is unaware.”
Fentanyl is the largest killer nationally, with a particular concentration in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Cocaine is the nation’s second deadliest illicit drug, and it’s made a bit of a comeback in recent years.
Cocaine overdose deaths increased by a third from 2016 to 2017, according to the CDC. In Colombia, the primary supplier of Cocaine to the U.S., Coca production has reached record highs, increasing access to the drug and reducing its price.
Locally, fentanyl, heroin and cocaine are all starting to make their way into the region, largely by way of the Twin Cities metro area. Yet the biggest issue remains meth, according to the Minnesota River Valley Drug Task Force’s Jeff Wersal.
“We just haven’t gotten the opioid issues that other parts of the country are seeing,” Wersal said. “Meth is still 90% of what we’re seeing.”
Wersal said that meth usage has increased dramatically throughout the area within the last decade. That’s due to a significant increase in access and dramatic decrease in the cost of imported meth over the last 5-6 years, he noted.
The meth epidemic is hardly new, although it is reaching historic levels. Andrew Drenth of the South Central Drug Investigation Unit said that locally meth has been the leading cause of drug seizures for more than a decade.
On the other hand, locally produced meth has continued to fall, as it has consistently since the passage of the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005, which put restrictions on key ingredients. Wersal said that his task force has busted just one meth lab in the last two years.
“No one’s cooking it anymore, because the imported meth is cheaper and better quality,” he said.