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Fatal Drug Overdoses In Ohio Increase To Record Number

Jacquelyn Martin
Associated Press

Fatal drug overdoses increased to a record 4,854 last year in Ohio, a 20 percent rise compared with the previous year, according to information reported to the state.

Data on unintentional drug deaths provided to the Ohio Department of Health show 2017 was the eighth year in a row that drug deaths increased. Ohio's county coroners logged 4,050 fatal overdoses in 2016.

The data shows the synthetic opioid fentanyl continued to fuel the drug epidemic, accounting for nearly three-fourths of last year's overdose deaths and killing 3,431 people. That was 46 percent higher than in the previous year. Cocaine-related deaths increased 39 percent from 1,109 in 2016 to 1,540 last year.

Positive news shown by the data included a 46 drop in heroin deaths to 987 last year for the fewest deaths in four years.

Fatal overdoses from prescription opioids also fell in 2017 to 523. That was the lowest number in eight years, down from a peak of 724 deaths in 2011.

Russ Kennedy, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Health, says while review of the data confirms fentanyl is "driving overdose deaths in the state," Ohio also is seeing "significant progress in reducing the number of prescription opioids available for abuse."

Kennedy confirmed Sunday that the health department expects to release its own analysis of 2017 drug deaths this week. He also noted that the information shows the number of unintentional overdose deaths in Ohio declined during the second half of 2017 by 23 percent.

A recent state report on drug trends stated that "drug cartels have flooded Ohio" with fentanyl, and many users don't realize they've taken the opioid because it's being cut into heroin and cocaine and even "pressed" into prescription opioids.

"Drug dealers are flooding communities with different drugs to see what takes. They are very smart businesspeople," said Lori Criss, chief executive officer of the Ohio Council of Behavioral Health & Family Services Providers.

Cheri Walter, chief executive officer of the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities, said the state's death toll was high, but could have been much worse.

"The reality is, we've focused on opioids and heroin, and now we're seeing more deaths involving other drugs, so we've got to (broaden our) focus on treatment" for all kinds of addiction, Walter said.

Gov. John Kasich's administration is spending more than $1 billion a year to fight the drug epidemic, most of it to provide addiction treatment though Medicaid expansion. The state also is investing in providing the opioid-overdose antidote, naloxone, to first responders and others and in supporting efforts including drug courts, housing for recovering addicts and educational programs.