Coroner: Drug-related deaths surpass homicides for first time in N.O. history

Drug deaths on the rise

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Orleans Parish coroner Dr. Jeffrey Rouse released a grim report Monday highlighting accidental drug-related deaths in 2016.

Rouse said in 2016, there were more than double the number of deaths than in 2015, and it is likely the first time that drug-related deaths have surpassed homicides in the history of New Orleans.

Rouse released numbers showing there were 211 drug-related deaths in 2016 as compared to 92 drug-related deaths in 2015.

In 2016, opiates were discovered in 166 drug-related deaths, a doubling as compared to 81 in 2015. Within that particular group of accidental opiate-related deaths in New Orleans, Rouse said there was a more than threefold increase in the frequency of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. In 2016, 48 people died accidentally with fentanyl in their system, compared to 13 in 2015 and cocaine was present in 105 accidental drug-related deaths in 2016 as compared to 34 in 2015.

Dr. Rouse said the economics of the drug market fuel the drug trade.

"It's estimated that a kilogram of heroin cost around $75,000 before you put it out on the street, and then make $300,000 to 400,000 off of that. A kilogram of fentanyl cost less than $10,000, and you can make over a million dollars with that," Rouse said. "Opioids in general are the driving force. It is concerning to me that the rate of fentanyl is going up exponentially within those opioid deaths."

Last year, local clinics collected $3.4 million to expand treatment resources for opioid addictions, according to New Orleans Health Department Medical Director Dr. Joseph Kanter.

Also, 2016 was the first year New Orleans fire fighters and paramedics started carrying the drug Naloxone to revive overdose patients. But the useful drug needs to be combined with education and rehab, according to addiction medicine psychiatrist Arwen Podesta.

"This is such a treatable disease. We have loads of evidence that medication-assisted treatment, plus counseling, plus peer support, plus social services," Podesta said. "We know that that combination of things work. We just need to get people into that combination of treatment."

Medical professionals fear 2017 will break 2016's mark if more is not done.

"It really hasn't trended down. It's still trending upward based on what we are seeing in our treatment communities," Podesta said.

"I'm concerned about what the 2017 numbers are really going to look like, especially if some of the other drugs that are out there, that scare the pants off of anybody in the business, really start getting into the mix," Rouse said.

The coroner is now concerned the drug carfentanil, which is more powerful than fentanyl, may surface in New Orleans.

Methamphetamines were present in 18 accidental drug-related deaths in 2016 as compared to 4 in 2015.

Dr. Rouse said there was no significant change in gender distribution between the years, with males representing 80 percent of the drug-related deaths.

While the absolute numbers of drug-related deaths in both African-Americans and Caucasians increased in 2016, a statistically significant increase was seen in the proportion of African Americans in 2016.

"New Orleans is in the midst of an accelerating public health crisis of drug-related deaths, driven chiefly but not exclusively by the ongoing national opiate epidemic. Medically, expanding access to all levels of addiction treatment is the solution, before persons end up in my office," Rouse said.

"Regarding criminal justice, I call upon leaders at all levels to support and expand drug diversion programs and drug courts that prioritize treatment rather than punishment for users. Finally, I call upon all those who seek to lead this city as our next mayor to heed these grim statistics and to articulate their plan to stem this growing tide of preventable deaths," said Rouse.

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