CDC: Heroin overdose deaths surpass gun homicides for first time

Heroin overdose deaths narrowly surpassed gun homicides as the more prolific killer last year, according to new CDC data relayed by The Washington Post. Nearly 13,000 people died from heroin overdoses in 2015, marking a 2,000-case increase from the year prior.

The uptick in heroin-related deaths contributed to the growing overall number of opioid-related deaths. For the first time, in 2015, deaths related to opioids surpassed 30,000. In conjunction with a sharp rise in heroin deaths, deaths related to powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl — which is 50 times more potent than morphine — increased by 75 percent from 2014 to 2015.

"The epidemic of deaths involving opioids continues to worsen," said CDC director Tom Frieden, MD, in a statement, according to the Post. "Prescription opioid misuse and use of heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl are intertwined and deeply troubling problems."

In the CDC's opioid overdose data, deaths may involve more than one substance, meaning the number of deaths pertaining to heroin and fentanyl are not mutually exclusive. Recently, fentanyl-laced heroin has contributed to a rash of overdose deaths across the nation.

In an emailed statement, Patrice A. Harris, MD, chair of the American Medical Association's Board of Trustees, responded to the CDC's new findings.

"The AMA agrees that physicians should limit prescriptions for opioid analgesics to the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible duration," said Dr. Harris. "The new data underscores our concern, however, that overly restrictive public policies that focus only on prescription opioid supply may lead some patients to turn to dangerous alternatives or street drugs. The sharp rise in heroin and illicit fentanyl deaths should give policymakers an urgent call to action that this epidemic requires a comprehensive, public health approach based on proven evidence."

Many experts say the criminalization to off-label drug use is hindering the nation's ability to address the growing opioid overdose epidemic, suggesting public policy on the matter may need to be revised.

"Criminalization drives people to the margins and dissuades them from getting help," Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told the Post. "It drives a wedge between people who need help and the services they need. Because of criminalization and stigma, people hide their addictions from others."

In September, Chuck Rosenberg, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said incarcerating drug addicts would not result in a reduction in opioid-related deaths.

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