As the rest of the country struggles to combat the worsening opioid epidemic, a new study suggests that Alaska has been hit particularly hard by the effects of fentanyl, a powerful opioid-based pain medication.
Alaska State Troopers released the 2017 Annual Drug Report last week, indicating fentanyl deaths in Alaska more than quadrupled in 2017. The increase in fentanyl-related overdoses also led to an increase in related crimes, including violent crimes.
The annual report details the effects various illegal drug trends in Alaska have had on overdose deaths. The report also includes data on alcohol-related incidents, since alcohol is illegal in many towns and areas.
Fentanyl deaths increased dramatically last year, according to the report. After eight fentanyl related deaths were reported in 2016, officials indicate that there were at least 37 overdose deaths in 2017.
According to the U.S. Census, the population of Alaska is estimated at 740,000 people. It is a relatively small state, so increases in the number of overdoses make a large impact. In fact, since 2012 Alaska has one of the highest per-capita death rates for prescription opioid overdoses in the United States.
The overall illegal drug problem in Alaska is worsening, according to the report. The illegal drug trends and increase in overdoses have lead to an increase in thefts, burglaries and violence.
The data indicated authorities seized thousands of grams of methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine in 2017. Heroin can sell for $1,000 per gram in remote Alaskan communities. Cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine are also commonly cut with fentanyl to increase the volume of drugs. Adding fentanyl makes these drugs much more lethal and increases the likelihood of overdose.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid painkiller that is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. It was developed primarily for patients who are in the most severe pain. Fentanyl metabolizes at a faster rate, which can lead to higher consumption to maintain the high.
Even a small amount of fentanyl can result in a fatal overdose. Across the U.S., fentanyl was linked to more than 50% opioid overdose deaths in 2016. In Alaska, the amount of fentanyl seized in 2017 equaled more than 24,000 lethal doses.
Roughly 70-85% of heroin users began their drug use by using pain medication and moved on to heroin, the report indicates. For this reason, Alaska launched a program offering pill disposal bags.
The bags help neutralize opioid pills, liquids, and patches and provide and easy way for households to get rid of unused medication.
Governor Bill Walker declared opioid abuse a public health disaster and called for existing federal grants to be used toward a multiyear program to distribute naloxone, the anti-overdose medication.
State lawmakers also approved a naloxone program which allows a standing medical order for naloxone in pharmacies through June 2021, instead of extending the declaration for one more year.
About 11,000 naloxone kits have been distributed across the state since January 2017.