Heroin’s imprint deepens in King County, report shows

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Heroin’s imprint deepens in King County, report shows

Growth seen in availability of clean syringes, naloxone, other interventions
Brian Donohue

Heroin overdoses claimed the lives of 132 people in King County in 2015, and treatment admissions involving that drug surpassed those of alcohol for the first time, according to an annual report published today by the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

In compiling data from multiple public agencies, the 13-page report (download PDF) reflects 2015 usage trends of multiple drug types and the effects – requests for information and referrals, treatment admissions, police evidence tests, etc. – experienced by drug users and the broader community. 

“Drug deaths and substance-use disorders continue to have a serious impact across King County," said Caleb Banta-Green, senior research scientist and the report’s lead author. “At the same time, important interventions including substance-use disorder treatment, clean-syringe distribution, and use of the opioid overdose antidote, naloxone, are all increasing.” 

Heroin treatment graphic
2015 King County Drug Trends Report, University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute
(Click to enlarge.)
graphic showing growth of heroin as cause for medical treatment in King County

Marijuana, in its third full year of being legal in Washington state, was characterized as a drug commonly used in King County. Publicly funded treatment admissions involving marijuana, however, were at their lowest point since 1999.

Heroin use and heroin-related calls to Recovery Helpline and admissions for treatment continued to increase, particularly among 18-29 year-olds. 

"The epidemic of heroin and opiate addiction continues to take an unacceptable number of lives in our community, said Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health-Seattle and King County. “All of us can support ongoing work to recognize and treat addiction as the chronic disease that it is, to prevent opioid overdose and to prevent addiction through better treatment and of management of physical and emotional pain.”

Methamphetamine-involved deaths totaled 86 in 2015, up fourfold from a decade earlier. The increase appears to stem in large part from the increasing use of methamphetamine and heroin together.

Ninety-seven deaths in King County were attributed to pharmaceutical opioids in 2015, similar to 2014. Most such use involves oxycodone and hydrocodone, but last year also saw the first documented overdose from acetyl-fentanyl, an illicitly produced synthetic opioid. 

Prescription painkillers’ link to heroin was reflected among syringe-exchange clients who reported being “hooked on prescription-type opiates prior to using heroin” – 53 percent, up from 38 percent in 2011. 

In 2015 Washington enacted a law that allowed medication prescribers to more easily extend the availability of the opioid overdose antidote naloxone. The percentage of county syringe-exchange clients that had access to naloxone increased from 28 percent in 2013 to 47 percent last year. About 3,500 take-home naloxone kits were distributed and more than 2,000 overdose reversals were reported. 

Needle exchanges countywide combined to distribute nearly 7 million syringes in 2015, up from 5.9 million a year earlier. 

“King County is actively pursuing ways to treat and address the opiate epidemic in this community.  We are making significant investments in naloxone and coordinating other lifesaving treatment interventions. We have the tools and are figuring out how to disseminate them as far and wide as possible,” said Brad Finegood, assistant director of the county’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Division.

The report’s contributors represent 10 organizations:
•    King County Adult Drug Court
•    King County Behavioral Health and Recovery Division
•    King County Medical Examiner’s Office
•    Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area
•    Public Health- Seattle & King County
•    Ryther Child Center
•    UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute
•    Washington Poison Center
•    Washington Recovery Helpline
•    Washington State Patrol

Media contacts:
For Caleb Banta-Green, contact Brian Donohue at UW Medicine - bdonohue@uw.edu; 206.543.7856
For Jeff Duchin, contact James Apa at King County Public Health - james.apa@kingcounty.gov; 206.263.8698
For Brad Finegood, contact Sherry Hamilton, King County Department of Community and Human Services - sherry.hamilton@kingcounty.gov; 206.263.9010