Illicit drug deaths up 20 percent in state

Article author: 
Alan Gustafson
Article publisher: 
Statesman Journal
Article date: 
Thursday, April 5, 2012
Article category: 
Article Body: 

Oregon State Police had the most drug seizures in the agency’s history last year. But deaths caused by illicit drugs spiked during the same period, killing 240 people statewide.

The 2011 death toll from heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine or a combination of them was up from 200 the year before, according to state statistics.

The dramatic increase in deaths tied to illegal drugs was reported Thursday by the state medical examiner, the same day state police reported a record-setting number of drug confiscations.

“The sharp rise in illicit drug deaths in just one year is alarming,” said Dr. Karen Gunson, the state medical examiner. “Of great concern is the rise in heroin deaths, probably indicating an increase in the availability of the drug.”

The grim data came as no surprise to Jo Meza, who runs Amazing Treatment, which operates drug-treatment centers in Salem, Dallas and Monmouth.

“No, it doesn’t, because I have had a huge increase at my treatment facility with opiate addicts and heroin addicts,” she said.

Meza described the availability of heroin and other illegal drugs as “extremely high right now on the streets.”

Heroin was by far the deadliest illegal drug in 2011, killing or contributing to 143 deaths, mostly young men. That was 53 more than died the year before, and the most since 2000, when 131 died from heroin overdoses.

Multnomah County had the most drug-related deaths among Oregon counties last year, with 119. That was a 37 percent jump from the 87 deaths recorded in 2010 in the state’s most-populated county.

Marion County had a slight decrease in deaths tied to illegal drugs last year, with 10. There were a dozen in 2010.

Amid the steep rise in deaths caused by illegal drugs, Oregon fatalities tied to prescription drug overdoses stayed at a steady but “unacceptable level” last year, Gunson said.

In 2011, there were 100 overdose deaths from methadone, and another 56 connected to oxycodone. That compared with 101 and 59, respectively, in the previous year.

“The unacceptable level of the number of prescription drug deaths remained steady,” Gunson said. “We must continue to educate patients on the safe use of these medications and continue to warn those who abuse these drugs of how dangerous and fatal misuse may be.”

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Meza said doctors also need to become better educated about manipulative addicts who go to great lengths to obtain multiple prescription medications, either to sell the drugs or use it themselves.

Heroin, the deadliest illegal drug in Oregon, is a cheap and plentiful central nervous system depressant. As with most illegal drugs, heroin gets shipped along Interstate 5. That’s where state troopers and drug detectives make most of their traffic-stop seizures, nabbing large amounts of meth and cocaine and smaller amounts of heroin.

In all, state police recorded 300 drug seizures last year, nearly 30 percent higher than the year before and a jump of more than 150 percent from 2008.

The confiscated drugs included 242 pounds of methamphetamine, 164 pounds of cocaine and 24 pounds of heroin.

Capt. Calvin Curths, director of the state police criminal investigation division, acknowledged that illegal drugs remain abundant in Oregon despite efforts to clamp down on trafficking.

“Although these seizures have kept traffickers from delivering substantial quantities of dangerous illegal drugs to their destination, significant supplies remain available and have a real effect on our communities and individuals,” Curths said.

State police made 382 arrests in connection with drug seizures last year, a 15 percent increase from the year before.

Last year’s surge in drug seizures appears to be a trend continuing this year, especially along I-5, police said.

Among several recent drug seizures highlighted by the agency was a Feb. 7 incident along the freeway in the Salem area. Stopping an SUV shortly after midnight, troopers confiscated less than 2 pounds of potent black tar heroin. Further investigation prompted detectives to obtain a search warrant allowing them to scour the same vehicle. This time, they found nearly five more pounds of heroin, tucked away in a concealed part of the SUV.

Drug related deaths

















*Totals do not add up because of cases of multiple drug usage.