UW Today

This is an archived article.

July 21, 2005

Drug deaths rising in King County

Drug-involved deaths increased by more than a third in 2004, due primarily to cocaine, heroin, prescription opiates and prescription and over-the-counter depressants, according to the latest report on drug abuse trends in the Seattle-King county area. The twice-yearly report is compiled by Caleb Banta-Green, research scientist at the UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

“Street drugs are still around at relatively high levels,” Banta-Green said, “while prescription and over-the-counter-drugs are now in full force.”

Cocaine-involved deaths are at their highest level in at least 10 years, numbering 92 in 2004. Cocaine continues to be the most common illegal drug mentioned in emergency department reports. Deaths involving depressants, such as Valium and Benadryl, were up 15 percent, and prescription opiates, such oxycodone and methadone, were up 40 percent in 2004 compared with 2003. It should be noted that more people obtain methadone for pain than for opiate addiction treatment.

Other findings include:

Treatment admissions for heroin are began to increase as treatment capacity expanded in 2004. Approximately 2,500 people in King County were in opiate treatment programs, mostly utilizing methadone treatment. Heroin-involved deaths totaled 75 in 2004, up a bit from 2003 but well below the peak of 144 in 1998.


  • Deaths and treatment admissions involving prescription opiates continue to rise steadily. Those entering methadone treatment cited prescription opiates as their primary drug of use increased from three percent to 12 percent of admissions between 1999 and 2004. Prescription opiate-involved deaths totaled 118 in 2004, up from 84 in 2003 and 28 in 1997.
  • Methamphetamine-involved deaths totaled 18 deaths per year in 2003 and 2004, up from three in 1997.
  • In 2004, one in every five drug-related deaths involved the combination of prescription opiates and depressants, and usually other drugs as well.
  • Negative consequences related to prescription stimulants appear low, but the number of prescriptions has increased substantially. Anecdotal reports of youth and young adult misuse are common.
  • Marijuana is widely used, particularly by youth.
  • The vast majority of injection drug users are infected with hepatitis B and C.
  • HIV among injection drug users is generally low, with the exception of methamphetamine-injecting men who have sex with men. The complete report is available on the publications page of the ADAI at http://adai.washington.edu/.