Beyond Opioids: Fatal Stimulant Overdose Also on the Rise

stimulant drug treatment in connecticut

The United States is facing an overwhelming overdose epidemic, which has killed more than 700,000 Americans since 1999. Today, drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S.

Opioids – ranging from painkillers to heroin – are involved in close to 70 percent of poisoning deaths, therefore fueling the nation’s overdose crisis. However, according to new national data, opioids are not the only drugs adding to the numbers. A new CDC report, released May 2019, sheds light on the rising number of stimulant overdoses across America.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) report, nearly 14,000 users died of a cocaine-related overdose in 2017. Over 10,000 more users died from an overdose containing psychostimulants like methamphetamine. These figures are up 33 percent from 2016, and triple the number of stimulant overdose deaths we saw just five years prior, in 2012. Fatal cocaine overdoses are now on par with heroin overdoses, which contributed to 15,000 deaths in 2017.

What are Stimulant Drugs?

Stimulants are drugs that increase alertness, awareness, and energy levels in users. They can be prescribed by a doctor (think, prescriptions like Adderall and Ritalin) or found illicitly on the streets, in the form of cocaine and methamphetamine. Each type of stimulant drug comes with different dangers and side effects; however, all are highly addictive and pose a great risk of overdose. Stimulant drug abuse can lead to dangerous spikes in blood pressure, rapid and irregular heartbeats, heart attacks, hypertension, organ damage, convulsions, coma, and death.

Most people abuse stimulant drugs to increase their energy levels – some use them to get amped up before a party or night out, while others will use them to pull an all-nighter and finish that last-minute assignment. Stimulant drug use is usually followed by an intense and temporary high, lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to six hours, depending on the drug.

Stimulant abuse has been popular for some time, yet experts say it’s been lightly ignored in light of the opioid crisis. The truth is, more people today abuse stimulants than opioid drugs: According to a recent WebMD article, 3.8 million people got high on opioids in 2016, while 4.3 million Americans got high on stimulant drugs.

What is Contributing to the Rise in Stimulant Overdoses?

There are a number of factors contributing to the rise of stimulant overdose deaths across the country – changes in drug supply, mixing of substances, laced drug batches (with or without users’ knowledge), and increasing availability of stimulants are just a few.

In 2017, methamphetamine and cocaine were the most and third-most frequently seized and tested drugs by the DEA (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration), respectively. In fact, for every kilogram of heroin seized over the last 5 years, these drug enforcement agents have seized 15 kilograms of stimulants. This underscores the drugs’ widespread availability, which the CDC suggests is increasing across most regions. According to the DEA, seizures of both cocaine and meth are at the highest levels they’ve seen in many years. Meanwhile, prices are at their lowest.

This begs the question, why are cocaine and meth prices at an all-time low? National statistics might support that it has something to do with cheaper, altered recipes for these drugs of abuse. In other words, many illicit manufacturers are lacing cocaine and methamphetamine with other substances, to give users an intense high while also cutting their costs. Specifically, they are cutting stimulant drugs with dangerous opioids like fentanyl.

According to the CDC report, nearly three-fourths of cocaine overdose deaths and more than half of psychostimulant overdose deaths also involved at least one opioid drug. In most cases, the opioid was fentanyl.

Fentanyl is a severely potent opioid that is 100 times stronger than morphine, and 50 times more potent than heroin. A pinch of fentanyl – a mere 2 milligrams – is a lethal dose for most people. As with most drug cocktails, fentanyl’s risks (and effects) are amplified when mixed with other drugs. In most batches of fentanyl-laced stimulants, at least one bag contains a deadly dose.

Stimulants and opioids are chemically opposite drugs, and as a result, have very conflicting effects. Fentanyl is used to numb the body from pain, while stimulant drugs like cocaine are used to create a sense of euphoria and energy in the body. Sometimes, users intentionally mix stimulant drugs with opioids like heroin, in efforts to achieve an intense high, followed by a relaxation period. This is commonly known as “speedball.” However, most users do not know what they are getting and using at all (and therefore take too much).

When combined, cocaine and fentanyl can exacerbate and mask one another’s symptoms. For example, a person may go into respiratory failure when overdosing on fentanyl. However, due to the effects of cocaine, they may exhibit signs of high energy instead of the typical overdose signs. The cocaine and fentanyl combination has taken the lives of several beloved stars, most recently Mac Miller and Lil Peep.

What Can Be Done About It?

While America’s opioid crisis continues to get deserved attention, we must also spread awareness regarding the rising stimulant overdose epidemic. Stimulants like cocaine are among the most commonly abused drugs in the United States. Most people do not expect they will overdose. However, due to the changing drug landscape, more and more people – including adolescents and young adults – are dying in the face of these drugs. As more stimulants are laced with fentanyl, we are watching the opioid epidemic reach an entirely new and unknowing demographic.

The CDC writes, “The rise in deaths involving cocaine and psychostimulants indicate a need for a rapid, multifaceted, and broad approach that includes more timely and comprehensive surveillance efforts to inform tailored and effective prevention and response strategies.” In addition, the CDC calls us to expand the availability of naloxone (to reverse opioid-related overdoses) and link users to the care they deserve – integrated, evidence-based addiction treatment.

If you or a loved one is abusing stimulants – whether it is cocaine or meth purchased illicitly, or an Adderall medication being used in ways other than prescribed – know that there is a risk for overdose. Please do not hesitate to reach out for help. You may call Turnbridge at 877-581-1793 to learn about our stimulant, as well as opioid, addiction treatment services in Connecticut.