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Drug-Related Deaths Slowly Climbing in Knox; Meth on Rise

Knox County’s number of drug-related deaths is still rising, but nowhere nearly as rapidly as it was.

Between 2017-2018, the number of drug-related countywide deaths rose 3.2%, from 316 people to 325, according to Knox County Regional Forensic Center’s annual Drug-Related Death Statistics report.

While still an increase, it’s nowhere near the 41% spike between 2016-2017, which Knox County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan attributed to an explosion of deaths from fentanyl and its analogues.

Fentanyl, meth most prominent

Those drugs continue to be the primary drug found in drug-related deaths the center investigates, found in 237 — nearly 73% — of cases.

“Synthetic opioids, including more potent and evolving fentanyl analogues, have become more powerful and deadly with each new released derivative,” Mileusnic- Polchan said. “These powerful drugs, produced in clandestine labs under questionable circumstances and unsanitary conditions, are finding their ways into our community. The demand for these drugs has led to a steady increase in crime as property crimes and other types of offenses and felonies are inexorably linked to addiction.”

Methamphetamine replaced cocaine as the second most common drug found in drug-related deaths, present in 115 cases, or nearly 36%. Third was heroin, followed by cocaine, alcohol, the antianxiety drug alprazolam (Xanax), oxycodone, morphine and methadone.

Mixing drugs common

In more than 72% of Knox County’s drug-related deaths, two or more drugs were present.

“As the RFC continues to monitor drug overdose trends and the introduction of novel and emerging substances, it has become apparent that the ‘speedball’ combination of methamphetamine and fentanyl, with or without analogue and/ or heroin, is a rising drug of choice,” Mileusnic- Polchan said. “Methamphetamine has been around for a long time, but today’s version is not the same substance as in the past. The methamphetamine flooding the local markets today is more refined and much stronger and is produced and imported from foreign, mostly overseas, labs.”

She said meth or speedball combinations are frequently found in the bodies of people who die from causes other than overdose.

“In those instances, it is likely the drug (or drugs) played an important role in the terminal event, be it motor vehicle accidents, falls, ballistic injuries or suicides of all methods,” she said.

Prescription drug-related deaths continue to decrease in comparison with illicit drugs, she said.

Some groups decreased

As in previous years, people 25-54 saw the most deaths, with the 24-34 age group increasing from 62 to 77 deaths in 2018 and the 45-54 age group increasing from 71 to 81. Two age groups saw decreases after sharp rises last year: 15-24- year-olds, who accounted for 12 deaths in 2016, 28 in 2017 and 16 in 2018, and 55-64year-olds, who accounted for 43 deaths in 2016, 64 in 2017 and 56 in 2018. Older age groups saw small increases.

Knox County men remained more likely than women to die of drug-related causes, and white residents accounted for more than 91 percent of deaths. Knox County saw a significant increase in drug-related deaths among black residents between 2016-2017 — from 23 to 43 deaths — but recorded 27 deaths among black residents in 2018. It is the first time in three years the number of drug-related deaths among black residents has not increased.

A heat map showing the location of overdoses confirm few parts of the county are unaffected, but 37917, 37915 and 37902 ZIP codes continue to be hot spots.

Mileusnic-Polchan said overdose deaths are beginning to plateau or decline in other regions. The forensic center also tracks drug-related deaths for Anderson County, which saw a decrease of more than 30 percent between 2017-2018. Anderson had 32 deaths in 2018, compared to 46 in 2017.

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