State Health Department officials say more Tennesseans died from drug overdoses last year than ever before in recorded history. The more than 1,600 deaths marked a 12 percent increase over the previous year.
The recent data show a rise in fatal overdoses from a combination of drugs. For example, deaths involving opioids and stimulants nearly doubled in that time period. And those involving the opioid pain killer fentanyl rose by nearly 75 percent.
Cinde Stewart Freeman is chief clinical officer at Cumberland Heights, a nonprofit drug and alcohol addiction recovery center in Nashville. She says people used to primarily mix opiates and alcohol.
But now, says Freeman, “We see people who mix alcohol with opiates of some sort and then the benzodiazapines on top of them. Unfortunately sometimes what people are getting is not what they think, so if it’s laced with fentanyl, which is a really high-powered opiate, it becomes even more deadly."
Tennessee’s Substance Abuse Services Commissioner, Marie Williams, says the rise in overdose deaths proves the importance of additional funding allocated by Gov. Bill Haslam and the legislature this year.
Other officials say while fatalities are rising, it’s hard to determine what percentage of the spike is due to an increase in toxicology exams. The opioid epidemic has significantly increased awareness of the need to conduct more post-mortem drug tests.