needle exchange heroinOverdose deaths rose 17 percent in Kentucky and 31 percent in Jefferson County in 2015, according to a new report from the Kentucky Office of Drug Control policy.

The state agency under the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet reported that 1,248 overdose fatalities occurred in the state last year, a significant increase of 17 percent from 2014 — a year that saw an increase of 7 percent from 2013.

Twenty-eight percent of these deaths were attributed to the use heroin, while 34 percent were attributed to fentanyl — another opioid that is much more powerful than heroin — being taken alone or in combination with heroin. Prescription opioid painkillers oxycodone and hydrocodone — once the greatest cause of overdose deaths in Kentucky — were detected in 23 and 21 percent of such deaths, respectively.

Jefferson County has the most overdose deaths of any county and also saw the largest increase in 2015. Last year, 268 people died from an overdose, a 31 percent increase from 2014. Nearly half of those deaths were related to heroin — also a 31 percent increase from last year — while 39 deaths were fentanyl related and 17 were related to combining fentanyl and heroin.

Source: Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy
Source: Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy

As for overdose deaths per capita over the last four years, northern and eastern Kentucky remain the most afflicted regions of the state, with many counties having a death rate per 100,000 residents of well over 39. Leslie County in eastern Kentucky had the highest overdose death rate of 69, while Kenton, Campbell and Gallatin counties in northern Kentucky each exceeded 46. Kenton County’s overdose deaths leaped by 58 percent in 2015 and witnessed the largest number of deaths related to fentanyl and that drug in combination with heroin.

While the new report shows a significant increase in heroin-related overdose deaths in Louisville during 2015, the Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness recently indicated that such deaths are far outpacing last years’ totals, citing heroin increasingly being mixed with fentanyl as one of the main causes. Louisville Emergency Medical Services personnel have had to administer the opioid overdose antidote naloxone to 832 patients through the first five months of 2016 — three times higher than the total at this point last year and nearly equal to that of all of 2015.

“The introduction of illicit fentanyl into the heroin trade is producing devastating results,” stated Van Ingram, director of the Office of Drug Control Policy, in a press release. “Whether it’s manufactured to resemble heroin or a prescription pill, the cartels have made an already dangerous situation worse.”

The Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation last year to increase penalties for drug traffickers, as well as to offer naloxone at pharmacies without a prescription and allow local health departments to operate a syringe exchange. This year the legislature passed a budget that increased funding for anti-drug measures by $10 million over the next two years.

“We all know someone who has suffered under this scourge, and today’s report is another troubling reminder that the complex problem of drug abuse demands a multi-faceted approach,” stated Kentucky Justice Secretary John Tilley. “We must remain focused and proactive and continue to build on these efforts.”

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]