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Hundreds dying from drug-related deaths in King County each year

(Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

We’re continuing to see a high number of drug-related deaths in King County linked to opiates as well as a surprising increase in the number of deaths related to a drug making a dangerous comeback.

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Those are the findings of a new study on 2016 drug trends. The yearly report from the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute says 332 people died from overdoses in King County last year.

“What we’re finding is drug deaths have gone up somewhat. They are at a very high level, the highest level we’ve seen in terms of numbers — 332 people,” Dr. Caleb Banta-Green said. “Now, our population has also increased, but we’re certainly seeing a lot of drug-caused deaths. That’s basically almost one a day in King County. And those drug-caused deaths are all over our county. As our population has expanded outside of Seattle … this is an issue that impacts people regardless of where they live.”

As you might expect, he says opiate overdoses accounted for most of those deaths.

“About two-thirds of all drug-caused deaths involve an opioid of some type. Most of those involve heroin, but a lot of them also involve prescription type opiates. We saw 17 deaths last year involving Fentanyl and Fentanyl-related drugs — potent opioids that are related to the prescription medication.”

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Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and has been linked to a growing number of overdoses including the death of music legend Prince last year.

Banta-Green says they’re not seeing a huge presence of the drug in our area yet, but it’s definitely here.

“We have a sense that those new Fentanyl products are in a bunch of different forms. They are being sold on the street as fake prescription opiates. Some people are buying them on the Internet knowingly. And we have a little bit of indication that they may also be showing up in heroin as well.”

He says a big part of the problem is regular prescription opiates such as Vicodin, Oxycontin and the prescription form of Fentanyl. But now they’re seeing multiple synthetic opiates, especially illegal Fentanyl, believed to mostly be coming from China.

“You never know what you’re buying if you’re buying off the street…” Banta-Green said.

Though opioids were to blame for most of the deaths, he says the overall opioid death rate in Washington state and King County did not increase last year.

“What we actually saw was heroin went down a little bit and essentially was replaced with these illicit Fentanyl products. So, so far, we haven’t seen an overall change.”

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Banta-Green says another big concern is the dramatic increase in meth-related deaths. That increase to 98 last year, compared to 20 in 2011.

“What we’re seeing is a very potent form is around and is very dangerous.”

The increased meth use is also be linked to the difficulty of obtaining cocaine, he says.

But it’s important people understand that addiction is the driving factor when we’re talking about opiate deaths. Banta-Green says there are signs of hope. The county did a survey in July, 80 percent who participated said they want help stopping or reducing use.

Banta-Green says for most it needs to be a low-barrier situation with treatment drugs like Buprenorphine, which satisfies their physical dependency but allows them to work, drive, and function like non-users. Banta-Green says there are some treatment centers in King Count where people can get the drug, and trained primary care doctors can also prescribe it.

He says it’s important people know those treatments are out there and anyone concerned about themselves or a loved one should call the state recovery helpline to get more information about what their options are.

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