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Overdose Deaths Show No Signs of a Turnaround in Tennessee

Last year set another record for overdose deaths in Tennessee. The state's health department released the latest figures Monday that showed 1,776 fatal overdoses in 2017.

Despite so much public attention on the epidemic, fatal overdoses in Tennessee have been ballooning by more than a hundred a year. Last year was no different, up from 1,631 in 2016.

Steven Martens, 33, was one of the casualties. He was found unresponsive sitting in his car at a stoplight last July. A nurse in a car behind him performed CPR until he could be taken to Vanderbilt Medical Center.

His mother, Debbie Martens, says he had recently returned to Smyrna after a year spent in and out of treatment centers in California. He was days away from starting a new job.

"It breaks my heart. That's 1,776 mothers and fathers, and then there's all the brothers and sisters," she says. "We post the deaths on Tennessee roads — that's more than the deaths on Tennessee roads. We're not doing anything. Something has to change."

This year, the Tennessee legislature did direct new spending toward treatment centers and law enforcement, as well as institute strict limits on prescribed opioids. Painkillers remain the majority of the problem.

But the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl is an increasing concern — representing a 70 percent spike over the previous year.

Martens believes her son took cocaine laced with fentanyl, which is relatively cheap and often mixed with other drugs. It now accounts for more than a quarter of all overdose deaths.

"We’re increasingly alarmed by the amount of fentanyl showing up in our state’s illicit drug supply," TBI Director David Rausch said in a statement. "We remain committed to disrupting the supply of these types of dangerous drugs, as the newest data from our partners at the Tennessee Department of Health prove the danger is real, immediate and continuing to grow."

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