UW News

July 15, 2002

Heroin and cocaine deaths dropping in Seattle-King County as use of methamphetamines and oxycodone increases

A study published by the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute (ADAI) at the University of Washington shows a significant drop in the number of deaths involving heroin and cocaine since 2000. Use of other opiates such as oxycodone, known as Percodan, and hydrocodone, known as Vicodin, have increased, while marijuana remains at the same high level of use. The report, prepared by the King County Community Epidemiology Work Group, shows that methamphetamine use continues to rise, while the use of club drugs remains low in general.

The lead author of the study, Caleb Banta-Green, research consultant with ADAI, says the impact of these drugs is not limited to the users alone.

“According to figures from Public Health — Seattle & King County, up to 85 percent of the 12,000 to 15,000 injection drug users here may be infected with hepatitis C, an infection that is spread primarily through contact with blood. Injection drug equipment as well as household items like toothbrushes, razors and nail clippers can all be contaminated with blood and spread hepatitis C,” Banta-Green says. “About 12 percent of newly diagnosed HIV cases are injection drug users as well. These health problems can spread to other people who are in contact with the drug user.”

The report shows that heroin-related deaths peaked in King County in 1998 at 143, compared with 61 for 2001.

There were 49 deaths in which cocaine was identified in 2001, accounting for 32 percent of all drug-related deaths. That number shows a decline from 2000, when there were 89 cocaine-related deaths.

Deaths involving non-medicinal use of other opiates, such as codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, methadone, oxycodone and others are at their highest level in at least the last nine years, at 49. Oxycodone alone accounted for 18 drug-related deaths in 2001, compared to only four in 1999.

Banta-Green points out that alcohol and marijuana remain the most widely used drugs in the Seattle area. Marijuana is the drug detected most frequently among people arrested in King County.

“In terms of need for treatment, alcohol is the biggest concern in this community,” Banta-Green says. “Its impact cannot be downplayed. It’s the primary factor in 41 percent of all drug treatment admissions in Seattle and King County.”

The entire report can be viewed on line in the publications section at http://adai.washington.edu.

The King County Community Epidemiology Work Group is part of a national network of researchers and public health officials from 20 major United States metropolitan areas and the state of Texas. It was established in 1976 by the National Institute of Drug Abuse. The Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse within the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services provides funding for the project in Washington. Statewide and county drug use trends will be included in future reports.