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Overdoses Killed 1,776 in Tennessee Last Year

Drug overdose deaths continued to rise throughout Tennessee last year, primarily because of a dramatic spike in deaths attributed to fentanyl, an exceptionally powerful opioid for which a lethal dose is no larger than two grains of sand.

In total, 1,776 Tennesseans died in drug overdoses in 2017, up from 1,631 the prior year, according to a Monday announcement from the Tennessee Department of Health. This is at least the sixth year in a row that the death toll has risen.

“More Tennesseans died last year from drug overdoses than from automobile crashes,” said Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner in a news release announcing the overdose death toll. “Few of us have escaped a direct impact of this crisis in experiencing the tragic death of a family member, loved one or friend.”

Prescription opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone remain the most common cause of overdoses — associated with 644 deaths — according to the new statistics. But the death toll was boosted by a second year of skyrocketing deaths attributed to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that was largely unknown only a few years ago. Fentanyl deaths rose 74 percent in 2016, killing 294, then another 70 percent in 2017, killing 500.

The spike mirrors what has been previously reported in Nashville, where city data showed fentanyl deaths surpassed heroin deaths for the first time in 2017.

Experts said this represented a deepening of the opioid crisis, with more addicts transitioning from prescription pills to street drugs, which are sometimes laced with fentanyl.

Fentanyl is similar to heroin but cheaper to make and 50 times stronger, so drug dealers mix it into their product to maximize profits. This causes overdoses because addicts believe they are using heroin but are actually injecting much more potent fentanyl.

Fentanyl has also been found laced into cocaine and in fake prescription medications, which are made with black market pill presses and sold to unknowing victims on the street.

“You can’t know what you’re getting when you buy drugs on the street, and that makes them extremely dangerous,” said Dr. David Ragon, chief medical officer for the state health department, in the news release.

“We are alarmed by the growing number of Tennesseans dying from drug overdoses, especially involving fentanyl. We must place additional focus on prevention of substance abuse.”

In a statement announcing the overdose deaths, TBI Director David Rausch said his agency would “remain committed” to disrupting the supply of fentanyl and other drugs. The new overdose statistics, he said, were further proof that the danger of Tennessee’s opioid epidemic is “real, immediate and continuing to grow.”

Dreyzhner, the state health commissioner, said the new overdose deaths underscore the need for “reasonable limits” on prescription medication and “additional treatment resources” for addicts.

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