The study, released Tuesday, shows that heroin is the leading cause of overdose deaths in the U.S. In 2010, the main culprit was the prescription pain medication oxycodone. The study also shows the startling rise in deaths from fentanyl overdoses. In a single year, from 2013 to 2014, the number of people who died by overdosing on the drug fentanyl more than doubled.
“Fentanyl is a particularly dramatic increase in overdose deaths, even though the prescribing of fentanyl has not increased,” says Adam Bisaga, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. “So most likely, fentanyl is coming from outside the official market. We’re talking about illicit fentanyl that’s being brought to this country.”
In the past few years, the U.S. has seen a flood of illegal Chinese supplies of the potent and fast-acting drug
The study used a new method to search the notes on thousands of death certificates to look for the names of specific drugs and words like “drug” and “overdose.”
The results show a change. In 2010, oxycodone was responsible for about 5,000 deaths. By comparison, heroin killed about 3,000 people that year.
The shift probably reflects a pattern of addiction that’s become more common in recent years: Patients often first become addicted to prescription painkillers, but when those become too expensive or too difficult to get, they turn to street drugs to get high. Drugs like heroin and fentanyl have become cheaper and easier to get in recent years. Some drugs sold on the street are so potent now that police officers have been warned not to handle them because they can be deadly even if touched.
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