Opioids Blamed for Sharp Rise in Cocaine Overdose Deaths
Scientists say the combined use of cocaine and opioids is driving the sharp rise in cocaine-related overdose deaths in recent years. We look at why this killer combination is so dangerous.
Between 2010 and 2015, the number of cocaine-related overdose deaths in the United States rose dramatically. After significant progress in reducing cocaine-related deaths in the latter half of last decade, the figure shot up to almost 7,000 fatalities in 2015.
For a number of years, the rise in fatalities was a source of confusion for authorities as, overall, people were using less cocaine. A new study appears to have found the answer: many of the deaths involved the use of opioids and cocaine together.
“Opioids, primarily heroin and synthetic opioids, have been driving the recent increase in cocaine-related overdose deaths,” the researchers behind the study concluded in the March issue of the American Journal of Public Health. “This corresponds to the growing supply and use of heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl in the United States.”
The research found that opioids were involved in 63 percent of the nearly 6,800 cocaine-related deaths in the US in 2015. Of these, more than 80 percent involved mixing cocaine with heroin or synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Interestingly, the study found that overdose deaths among those using cocaine alone decreased between 2006 and 2015, lending further weight to the argument that opioids are the driving force behind the recent increase in cocaine-related overdose deaths.
Opioid Addiction: A Centuries-old Problem
The use of cocaine and opioids together is nothing new. A long list of celebrities have lost their lives by mixing heroin and cocaine, from John Belushi and River Phoenix in the ‘80s and ‘90s to the more recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. In fact, recent reports suggest Adolf Hitler may have used a combination of opioids and cocaine.
While the opioid in many of those cases was heroin, many of the cocaine-opioid combo deaths recorded this decade have been linked to prescription painkillers such as fentanyl and oxycodone.
Some doubt remains as to how many cocaine-opioid overdose deaths are caused by people intentionally using the drugs together. While ‘speedballing’ — intentionally snorting or injecting a mixture of cocaine and opioids — remains a common practice among certain drug users, authorities believe many people are unaware they are taking the deadly cocktail.
Increased seizures of cocaine spiked with fentanyl would appear to back up this theory. One of the most sinister aspects of this trend is that those who are unaware they are taking opioids are those most at risk, as even a small amount can lead to overdose.
Why are Opioids so Dangerous?
‘Opioids’ is a catch-all word for drugs and medicines that act on the body’s opioid receptors. The most infamous opioid is heroin, but the word also includes any drug derived from the opium poppy, such as morphine, or synthetic or semi-synthetic drugs such as fentanyl, hydrocodone and oxycodone. Medicinally, opioids are used to treat pain – they have been for centuries. Unfortunately, they are also highly addictive and frequently cause fatal overdoses.
While the dangers of heroin addiction are widely known, there has been a worrying increase in its use in the US and Australia over the past decade. There are a few theories as to why heroin use is on the rise again. Chief among these is the over-prescription of opioid painkillers, leading those who become addicted to seek out heroin when their supply is cut off. Add to this the flood of illegally made opioid painkillers available online, and it’s easy to see how the problem has reached epidemic proportions.
The upshot is that far more people have easy access to opioids of one form or another than, say, 20 years ago, leading more to more addictions and more overdoses. The worrying trend even prompted former US President Barack Obama to increase funding to deal with the opioids issue during his last year in office.
Here are some trends and statistics that illustrate just how serious the opioid issue has become:
- Opioid use quadrupled in Australia between 2001 and 2013
- In 2012, pharmaceutical opioids were responsible for 70 percent of all opioid overdose deaths in Australia.
- Americans consume more opioids per capita than any other country. Australia is 8th on the list.
- In 2015 the US recorded over 52,000 overdose deaths, more than ever before. Of these, almost two-thirds were linked to opioids.
- In 2015, US life expectancy fell for the first time in decades. Drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning are seen as a major contributor to this.
- In 2014, of people in the US who met the definition of having a drug use disorder, 89 percent did not get the help they needed.
Help for Opioid and Cocaine Addiction
A key factor in responding to any epidemic is the ability of healthcare systems to help those most at risk. So far, it appears that authorities in Western countries are struggling, both in terms of stemming the amount the cocaine and opioids available and providing drug addiction treatment to those who need it.
Until governments can successfully overcome the barriers to treatment, quality private rehab may remain the best option at a time when drug overdose deaths are rising at alarming rates. Inpatient opioid and cocaine addiction treatment can vastly increase the chances of a successful recovery.