The recently released 2016 Medical Examiner report for District 10, which is comprised of Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties, notes drug deaths are on the rise. This mirrors a statewide and national trend. Pain killer abuse has been declared a public health emergency by the president.
Drug deaths lowering life expectancy rate
Heart disease and cancer are the leading killers in the U.S., but unintentional deaths are a close third. Drug overdoses make up nearly one third of unintentional deaths. Largely attributed to the opioid epidemic, the life expectancy for Americans has declined two years in a row, the first two year decline since the 1960s.
In Florida, the statewide drug monitoring program allows doctors and law enforcement agencies to monitor patients who might be abusing prescriptions. The program helped to curb prescription drug overdoses, but prescription drugs still led to more overdose deaths than illegal drugs. Nonetheless, illegal drug deaths saw staggering increases.
The big three
Fentanyl, heroin and cocaine were the leading causes of drug overdoses in 2016. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, can be prescribed or illegally manufactured. It is 50-100 times more potent than morphine and often sold as a counterfeit oxycodone. Like other opioids, fentanyl produces a rapid high but can lead to sedation and respiratory depression. Victims can suffer from respiratory arrest, where their breathing slows to a stop, resulting in death.
Fentanyl deaths statewide have risen 97 percent. In 2014 there were only 397 deaths from fentanyl, increasing to 705 in 2015 and 1,390 in 2016. Heroin is often laced with fentanyl, leading to overdoses because it makes the drug 25-50 times stronger than plain heroin. Since heroin metabolizes into morphine, the exact number of heroin deaths is likely under reported.
Cocaine deaths are also on the rise, doubling from 2015-2016 in Polk County. Statewide the figure increased from 967 deaths in 2015 to 1,834 in 2016. Deaths for 2017 are likely to follow suit.
As drug laws change and drug traffickers and dealers face responsibility for overdose deaths, the landscape of the opioid epidemic will continue to evolve.