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Drug Deaths

Report: Cowlitz County's rate of opioid overdoses tops in state

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Cowlitz County had the highest rate of heroin-related deaths in the state in the three-year period from 2011 through 2013, and its rate of prescription-drug overdose deaths also was well above the state average, according to new numbers the state Department of Health released Monday.

Between 2011 and 2013, there were 24 heroin deaths in the county, or about 9 per 100,000 people per year. That’s nearly three times the state rate.

During the same period, 29 people here died from opiate prescription drug overdoses, also about of 9 per 100,000. That’s 40 percent higher than the state rate.

The state average of opioid deaths has fallen 29 percent since 2008, but the decline seems to have stalled, according to a Department of Health press release. Cowlitz County, meanwhile, saw a slight uptick.

Among drug deaths, “prescription drugs are our number-one killer. They have been for years,” Cowlitz County Coroner Tim Davidson said Monday.

Examples of prescription opiates are painkillers such as morphine, methadone, hydrocodone, and oxycodone. Opioid drugs are sold under brand names such as OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin and Demerol. Heroin is an illegal opioid.

Davidson said with prescription drugs, it’s not usually just one drug but a toxic cocktail that leads to accidental fatal overdoses.

He surmised the opiate death rate has stayed about the same so far in 2014.

Bryan Kerr, clinical supervisor with the Drug Abuse Prevention Center in Kelso, said the stigma for using hard drugs like heroin has faded, which has led to increased use. Opiates both legal and illegal are the “number one drug of choice” for many entering the center, he said.

Longview Police Department’s Street Crimes Unit supervisor Sgt. Ray Hartley told The Daily News in April that heroin has grown in popularity just in the past few years.

“It runs neck and neck (with meth) now,” he said.

Cowlitz County led the state in the rate of combined heroin and prescription opioid-related deaths between 2011 and 2013 — 17.9 per 100,000. That was more than twice the state average of 8.6 and slightly higher than the county rate in 2009-2011, when it was 17.6 deaths per 100,000.

To compare, King County’s rate was 7.5, less than the state average, and Spokane County’s was 9.3, just above the state rate. Clallam and Snohomish counties trail Cowlitz County with rates of 14.7 and 14.1 deaths per 100,000, respectively.

Deaths statewide have risen dramatically since the 1990s, according to the press release, leading state health officials to set up a prescription database to help fight illegal use and accidental misuse. The department said reading labels carefully, consulting physicians about prescriptions and not sharing or selling prescriptions — both illegal — can help prevent accidental overdoses.

Many communities have established drug take-back programs to get unused prescriptions out of medicine cabinets, where young people and potential abusers can find them. Unused substances can be brought to the Woodland and Longview police departments and Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office. Visit www.takebackyourmeds.org for more information.

Contact Daily News reporter Brooks Johnson at 360-577-7828 or bjohnson@tdn.com.

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