More than 200 people died from drug-related causes in 2016, more than double the number of similar deaths from 2015. Compared to 2015 deaths, the number of people who died with the synthetic opioid fentanyl in their system more than tripled.
According to a report recently released by New Orleans Coroner Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, of last year's record 211 drug-related deaths, 166 involved opiates - compared to 81 in 2015. Forty-eight people died with fentanyl in their system. There were 13 fentanyl-related deaths in 2015, when there were 93 drug-related deaths overall.
“New Orleans is in the midst of an accelerating public health crisis of drug-related deaths, driven chiefly but not exclusively by the ongoing national opiate epidemic," Rouse said in a statement.
2016, Rouse said, was "likely the first time that drug-related deaths have surpassed homicides in the history of New Orleans."
Rouse suggested that may be the case during City Council hearings last summer, when he announced that within the first five months of the year, he classified 65 deaths as opiate overdoses, topping the total number of drug-related deaths from the previous year before 2016 was halfway through. By August, 90 people died from opiate-related overdose deaths. Rouse classified 93 deaths as murders during the same time frame.
New Orleans isn't alone in facing an opioid crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioids killed more than 33,000 people in 2015, more than quadruple the number of opioid deaths a decade ago. More than three-quarters of heroin users had used prescription opioids before using heroin. But the rise in fentanyl's spike in drug supplies has had a devastating impact.
In 2016, the city made naloxone - which can reverse the effects of a heroin or opiate overdose - available without a prescription (but for a price) at University Medical Center and several drug stores.
Writing in Antigravity last year, Nora Maria Fuller with Trystereo/New Orleans Harm Reduction Network said "the widespread availability of today’s super potent synthetic opiates reflects an entrenched, decentralized innovation of the heroin economy. The foreseeable future entails wide access to fentanyl-laced batches of heroin."
According to Rouse's report, cocaine was present in 105 accidental drug-related deaths, compared to 34 in 2015, and methamphetamines and amphetamines were present in 18 deaths, compared to four in 2015.
Rouse noted that there were no significant changes in drug use among genders from 2015 to 2016, but deaths among African-Americans spiked to 45 percent of drug-related deaths last year, compared to 28 percent in 2015.
Rouse urged state and local leaders - including those considering running for mayor - to focus on addiction treatment.
"Medically, expanding access to all levels of addiction treatment is the solution, before persons end up in my office," he said. "Regarding criminal justice, I call upon leaders at all levels to support and expand drug diversion programs and drug courts that prioritize treatment rather than punishment for users. Finally, I call upon all those who seek to lead this city as our next mayor to heed these grim statistics and to articulate their plan to stem this growing tide of preventable deaths.”