The good, bad and ugly in Ohio’s war on opiates

The Ohio Department of Health’s annual report on drug overdoses in the state for 2016 reveals an eye-opening mish-mash of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Sadly, the bad and the ugly far outweigh the good.

Most of the findings contained in the ODH’s 10-page “2016 Drug Overdose Data: General Findings” report released Wednesday reinforce the Buckeye State’s disturbing reputation as a leader among states in this nation’s wretched heroin and opiate overdose epidemic.

Among the bad, yet not very surprising, news is the death toll from the drug menace climbed to its highest level in state history last year. Across Ohio, 4,050 men, women and children succumbed to accidental drug overdoses, an increase of exactly 1,000 deaths, or 32.8 percent over 2015’s toll.

In the Mahoning Valley, that upswing is painfully evident as well. Trumbull County continues to stand out as the hardest hit with 111 deaths, up from 89 in 2015, for a rate of 34.2 deaths per 100,000 residents, the seventh highest among all 88 counties. Columbiana County, with 39 deaths last year and a death rate of 25.3, ranks 25th. Mahoning County, with 83 deaths for a rate of 25.1, comes in at 26th highest.

Behind these cold numbers and rankings, however, emerge alarming findings that explain the unrelenting surge in the scope of the scourge.

For example, the number of deaths tied to fentanyl – an opiate about 100 times more potent than morphine – skyrocketed last year. Fentanyl and related drugs were involved in 58.2 percent of all unintentional drug overdose deaths in 2016. By comparison, fentanyl was involved in only 3.9 percent of deaths in 2012.

Lethal threat

What’s worse, carfentanil, a drug 100 times more potent than heroin used to sedate elephants, roared onto the drug scene, accounting for 340 deaths, most of them in the latter half of the year. A nearly 100 percent increase in seizures of fentanyl and carfentanyl by law-enforcement authorities last year reinforces its lethal threat and underscores the need for continued vigilance to aggressively confiscate the synthetic opiate killer before it falls into the wrong hands.

Another ugly new trend leaders of the Ohio State Highway Patrol alerted The Vindicator Editorial Board to months ago is clearly documented in the new ODH data: the comeback of cocaine. Across the state, deaths from that recreational stimulant soared dramatically from 685 in 2015 to 1,109 last year.

But for all of the disparaging data contained in the report, a few bright spots are visible that should give those on the front lines of the battle a scintilla of hope.

For one, for the first time since the opiate epidemic first burst onto the scene a decade ago, the level of heroin-related overdose deaths did not climb significantly. In fact, those deaths remained relatively flat with 1,444 in 2016 compared with 1,424 in 2015. That trend appears to indicate that public-awareness campaigns targeting heroin may have begun to wield tangible impact.

Also inspiring hope is that in about a dozen counties, overdose deaths actually fell last year. Even some large urban counties, most noticeably Hamilton, registered their first overall declines in years.

Perhaps the most hopeful trend the report reveals, however, is the monumental drop in deaths from prescription opioids, which fell to their lowest level since 2009.

Those declines represent the product of increased oversight by the state medical and pharmacy boards and an aggressive crackdown on so-called “pill mills” that obtain and dispense the narcotics in a laissez-faire too-few-questions-asked fashion.

Those efforts strengthened Thursday, when new state laws took effect severely limiting the prescription of opioid analgesics for the treatment of acute pain.

Yet despite those promising signs, Ohioans cannot delude themselves into thinking we have tamed the monster. If anything, the report sounds a clarion call that more awareness, more treatment, more resources and more commitment by all parties affected by the plague – which means virtually everyone – must be mustered if we hope to make any major lasting dents in the epidemic’s crippling grip on our state.

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