In Arapahoe Country, Coroner Dr. Kelly Lear-Kaul has seen her fair share of the fallout from an uptick in overdose-related deaths reported across the state of Colorado.
In her county, the lethal drug overdose rate has doubled from what it was back in 2001. In roughly 75 percent of those cases, the culprits are prescription painkillers like Oxycodone, which is an opioid medication more commonly referred to as Percocet or OxyContin.
In human terms, Dr. Lear-Kaul saw 100 drug overdose deaths in Arapahoe County in 2015.
“They fill up the gurneys,” she says, and the families that come to claim the bodies have varied reactions. Some, she says, are completely surprised.
“They’ll say ‘oh yeah, he’s been groggy and I know he took too many or hep kept going back to his pill bottle,” Lear-Kaul says. “So it’s not a surprise for a lot of people. For some it is, definitely.
Colorado public health experts are working to respond to what some are calling a crisis. “It’s a pretty grim tally,” said Tamara Keeny, a policy analyst at the Colorado Health Institute. Her organization published an new report analyzing the state’s drug-related deaths.
When mapped across the state over time, that research shows conclusively that from 2002-2014, every county in Colorado became “redder” — had more overdose deaths — on the map as each year passed.
These findings would appear to contradict another study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2014, which shows that states which have legalized marijuana for managing chronic pain have significantly fewer deaths from prescription painkiller overdoses each year.
Researchers looked at medical marijuana laws and death certificate data in all 50 states between 1999 and 2010. During that time, just 13 states had medical marijuana laws in place.
“We found there was about a 25% lower rate of prescription painkiller overdose deaths on average after implementation of a medical marijuana law,” lead study author Dr. Marcus Bachhuber said.
In El Paso County, Colorado, there has been a fast-increasing heroin-related death count as dozens have died.
Across the state, death involving heroin overdoses alone accounted for 151 deaths, tripling the total over the last four years.
Marijuana advocacy groups are working to promote medical cannabis as an alternative painkiller to opioids.
(Photo Credit: Projectknow)