Drug-related deaths in Connecticut hit their highest point in nearly 10 years last year, according to statistics from the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
It's a development that is not surprising to law enforcement and treatment providers throughout the state.
"Mood altering has always been a stubborn problem -- stubborn and persistent," said Alan Mathis, chief executive officer of Liberation Programs, a drug treatment program with facilities in Norwalk, Stamford and Bridgeport. "We've never won the war on drugs."
There were 539 drug-related deaths in the state in 2013, nearly 100 more than the 435 reported the year before, according to information provided from the medical examiner's office.
The 2013 deaths also represent the highest number of such casualties since at least 2004, when drug-related deaths totaled 344.
Many of the state's major cities also hit peaks in 2013, including Bridgeport, which had 34 drug-related deaths that year -- nearly doubling the 19 it saw the year before.
Danbury, Greenwich, Hartford and New Haven were also among the cities hitting peaks in 2013.
"There's certainly been an increase in people seeking treatment," said Mary Kate Mason, spokeswoman for the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. The department provides help for low-income adults with mental health and/or substance abuse treatment needs.
Mason said alcohol abuse is the top addiction for which clients seek treatment, followed by heroin.
Drug abuse was thrust into the national spotlight following the death of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from an apparent heroin overdose earlier this month.
But statistics show that drug deaths have been on the rise for years, both in Connecticut and nationwide. Last year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, as of 2010, drug overdose deaths had risen nationally for 11 consecutive years.
State police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance called the rise in Connecticut "disappointing." "Our statewide narcotics task forces works hard to stem the flow of illegal drugs into our state, but obviously we haven't stopped it yet," he said.
However, it's likely that not all the deaths are linked to illegal drugs. The bulk of the drug-related deaths in 2013 involved opiates, a class of drugs that includes illicit drugs, such as heroin, but also many prescription painkillers, such as Oxycontin.
In fact, some see the rising popularity of these medications as a possible contributor to the rise in deaths. "There's more availability of opiates today than ever before," Mathis said.
A report released last year by the nonprofit group the Trust for America's Health supports that statement, showing that sales of prescription painkillers per capita quadrupled between 1999 and 2010. The CDC data showed that nationally, deaths linked to opioid painkillers also rose over that time to 16,651 in 2010 from 4,030 in 1999.Read Full Article
Not only are the medications themselves a potential danger, but using them can lead to the abuse of other drugs, including heroin.
Sometimes people who get addicted to prescription painkillers move on to heroin, said Shawn Lang, director of public policy with AIDS Connecticut, a Hartford-based coalition of organizations that provide services to state residents living with HIV/AIDS.
"Folks go to heroin because it's much cheaper and much easier to find," Lang said.
AIDS Connecticut is spearheading an overdose-prevention workgroup, collaborating with a variety of prevention programs, state agencies and other organizations.
Land said the good news about Connecticut is that it's one of the few states that has laws specifically aimed at preventing overdoses. These include the good Samaritan law, which provides immunity from criminal charges to those who report a possible drug overdose.
The state also has a drug rescue law, which allows access to the medication naloxone, a prescription drug that counteracts overdoses.
Only 17 states and Washington, D.C., have a good Samaritan or drug rescue law on the books.
Lang also said while it's positive that Connecticut is ahead of the curve, not enough people are aware of these laws, particularly the drug rescue law.
"We're really trying to raise awareness about naloxone," she said. "This is something that can immediately bring someone out of an overdose." People can get a prescription for the medication if, for example, they fear that their son or daughter is in danger of overdosing.
The drug chain Walgreens has 20 "centers of excellence" in the state that fill naloxone prescriptions, including two in Bridgeport, and one site each in Fairfield, Stratford and Norwalk. Yet few people in the state know about the medication, Lang said.
"There are even some doctors who don't know," she said.