King County drug overdose deaths continue to rise

Uptick seen in fatal overdoses involving illicit fentanyl, says UW author of annual drug trends report.

Media Contact:

  • Public Health - Sharon Bogan, 206.263.8770,
  • UW Medicine - Brian Donohue, 206.543.7856,

KING COUNTY, WA—Drug and alcohol use caused the deaths of 379 King County residents in 2017, an increase from 348 in 2016, according to two new reports published today by Public Health – Seattle & King County and the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

Data from the 2017 Overdose Death Report describes drug and alcohol-caused deaths over the past decade investigated by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office. The report found that in 2017, heroin and opioids, including fentanyl, continue to be the most common drugs associated with fatal overdoses (69 percent) while the rate of deaths involving methamphetamine continue to increase sharply.

There is continued concern about the growing impact of illicit fentanyl. Fentanyl was involved in 33 fatal overdoses in 2017, up from 23 in 2016. There have been 17 confirmed fentanyl-related deaths in the first quarter of 2018. 

Findings from the reports include:

  • While opioids are the most common drug class in fatal overdoses, the majority of overdoses involve multiple types of drugs.
  • Methamphetamine-involved deaths increased sharply over the last decade, from 18 in 2008 to 136 in 2017.
  • Overdose disproportionately affects young people, men and people experiencing homelessness. Half of all overdose deaths in 2017 were less than 46 years old and 17 percent were among persons experiencing homelessness.
  • The estimated rate of drug- and alcohol-caused deaths was 30 percent higher among blacks and five and a half times greater among American Indian/Alaskan Native populations.

The 2017 Drug Trends Report, also published today, provides context for understanding the lives of drug users. For example, among those surveyed at the syringe exchange last year, 69 percent were homeless or impermanently housed and 42 percent had been incarcerated in the prior year.

Progress made to address the epidemic

King County, along with partners have taken steps to implement the recommendations presented by the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Taskforce to confront the epidemic.

Examples of progress include:

  • Over the past year, 40 new access points for buprenorphine became available. Buprenorphine is one of the best treatments available for opiate use disorder.
  • King County worked with partners to open a new detox and treatment facility.
  • We distributed over 8,000 naloxone kits to law enforcement, housing and treatment providers, people with opiate-use disorder and their families. With those distributions, 2,297 overdoses were reported successfully reversed.

Key ways to reduce the risk of overdose include:

  • Never inject when you’re alone
  • If you got heroin from someone new, or if it looks different, use less.
  • Don’t use heroin in combination with other “downers” such as benzodiazepines ("benzos"), alcohol or prescription-type opiates such as OxyContin or methadone. Using with stimulants such as cocaine or methamphetamine is also dangerous.
  • If someone is overdosing call 911. If you are trying to help in an overdose, the Washington state Good Samaritan law protects you and the overdose victim from drug-possession charges.
  • Give naloxone and rescue breaths.


“Methamphetamine and heroin are the most common illicit drugs locally. They predominate in police evidence testing, drug court, drug treatment, calls to the Helpline, and deaths. Thankfully, based on the 2017 syringe-exchange survey, we know that most methamphetamine and heroin users want to stop or reduce their use,” said Caleb Banta-Green, principal research scientist at the UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. “The county is building more capacity to help people quickly access treatment.”

“The opioid epidemic in King County continues to increase, with no end in sight,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County. “We know that most people with opioid use disorder want help to reduce their use, and we are increasing treatment access throughout the County. But the epidemic is outpacing our efforts, both locally and nationally." 

“Even as we make progress, including the expansion of evidence-based medication assisted treatment and distributing naloxone into the community, we must also redouble our efforts to prevent drug use and overdose,” said Brad Finegood, chief health integration strategist, Behavioral Health and Recovery Division and co-chair, Heroin and Opiate Addiction Task Force.  

“Each data point we collect represents the countless friends, families and community members devastated by loss from drug overdoses,” said Dr. Richard Harruff, chief medical examiner, King County Medical Examiner’s Office. “In this spirit, we convey our heartfelt condolences to those who have lost loved ones and dedicate our efforts to the hope of turning the tide on this societal disease.”

“Nationwide data shows that American Indians and Alaska Natives abstain from alcohol at greater rates than other races or ethnic groups, but this report shows that there is a lot of work to be done collectively with those suffering from addiction to prevent both alcohol and drug-related deaths,” said Dr. Greg Maddox, chief medical officer at Seattle Indian Health Board. “This data points to an opportunity to further expand beyond western medicines, which is why we are adamant about treating our patients in a culturally appropriate way and having traditional methods at the center of everything we do.”

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