Report: 2016 marks highest rate of drug overdose deaths in 30 years

The rate of drug overdose deaths increased 9 percent in 2017 over the previous year, the most dramatic rate of increase since the Department of Health and Human Services began tracking overdose deaths 30 years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday.

The number of drug overdose deaths hit 50,129 last year, the highest number since the government began keeping track. Officials attributed the rise largely to fentanyl, a heroin-like synthetic drug that is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin.

The death rate from fentanyl-based opioids — carfentanil, fentanyl and other forms of heroin — increased by more than a third, according to the new report. Carfentanil, as one example, kills an average of 5 people per day, according to emergency departments that deal with its overdoses.

Carfentanil is known as an elephant tranquilizer and reportedly is used to sedate elephants.

White House drug czar Robert O. Johnson said the sad new report did not come as a surprise.

“A number of key risk factors have become substantially more prominent over the last few years, and overdose deaths have continued to increase,” he said. “This is part of a longer term trend. We have to continue to work on prevention, and we need to find new ways to treat drug addictions.”

The drugs that contributed to the increases include fentanyl, heroin, synthetic opioids such as carfentanil and fentanyl analogs, which are also increasingly abused, and prescription painkillers, the report said. In addition, methamphetamine and ecstasy use also increased in 2017, with methamphetamine use rising the most among African-Americans.

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