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Washington's Narcotic Epidemic Is Shifting From Prescription Painkillers To Heroin

Michael Dwyer
A syringe lies in the grass on a playing field near Charlestown High School, in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, Monday, June 14, 2004.

Deaths from prescription painkiller overdoses are down in Washington, but new statewide numbers show that progress is being offset by another alarming statistic.

Between 2008 and 2014, the number of people who died from prescription narcotic overdoses dropped from over 512 to 319. But over the same period, the number of deaths from heroin overdose nearly doubled, to 293.

Those numbers reflect the shifting nature of narcotic addiction in Washington and elsewhere. Prescription opioid deaths peaked in the 2000s. Then doctors began to revise their prescription guidelines to make those medicines harder to get.

State Health Officer Kathy Lofy with the Washington Department of Health says that probably pushed some addicts from one drug to another.

“Most researchers feel that the switch to heroin occurs because heroin can be obtained for less money on the street,” Lofy said.

Over all, the total number of deaths has stayed pretty consistent, around 600 people a year.

The prescription guidelines were just revised yet again, and state agencies say they’re pouring about $9 million in new state and federal funds into treatment programs.

Lofy says officials hope that more prudent prescription practices will mean fewer new addicts, which would eventually bring the overall death rate down. 

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.