Fatal drug overdoses have increased across the nation, but the epidemic has taken a fierce toll on North Carolina, where some counties endure death rates among the worst in the country, federal data show.
Overdoses killed as many as 16 people per 100,000 residents in North Carolina in 2014 compared to about 9 people per 100,000 in 2002.
That means overdoses now cause more deaths in the state than car crashes or guns, state health officials said.
All 100 counties in North Carolina saw overdose deaths rise, but the problem appears most acute in the mountains and foothills.
In 2002, just one North Carolina county – Cherokee County on the Tennessee border – had an overdose death rate of more than 20 per 100,000 people. By 2014, that number jumped to 27 counties, with the vast majority in the foothills and mountains.
“I ask myself everyday ‘Why do we have more drug overdoses than anywhere else? How can we keep our citizens safe?’ ” Boone Police Department Lt. Chris Hatton said. “The short answer is I don’t know.”
Hatton works in Watauga County, which had a lower overdose death rate than many nearby counties, but ranked higher than populous, large urban areas such as Mecklenburg County.
Experts say growing addiction to prescription painkillers is driving the trend.
Those drugs, also known as opioids, killed more people in the state than alcohol, cocaine and heroin combined, according to a 2014 report from the N.C. Program Evaluation Division, the General Assembly’s research arm. The report also found that overdose death rates were generally higher in places where doctors wrote the most prescriptions for opioid drugs.
The impact can seen in the morgue at Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, where forensic pathologist Dr. Patrick Lantz performs autopsies for the western part of the state.
When abusers cannot get painkillers, Lantz said, many turn to heroin. The illegal drug gives users the euphoria of prescription drugs, but is far less expensive on the street.
Officials there identified six deaths from heroin overdoses in 2010, he said.
That number jumped to 52 in 2014, Lantz said. Authorities suspect there were as many as 70 heroin overdose deaths last year, but do not have final figures, he said.
Lantz sees prescription painkillers as a double-edged sword. Used appropriately, he said, they have the power to transform and restore lives. Yet the consequences for patients who become addicted are devastating.
“These are very addictive drugs and there are no resources to get people off of them,” he said. “People get arrested and that’s the only treatment they get. It’s going to take some great minds to figure this out.”
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