Meth-Related Deaths in America Are Skyrocketing

Illustration for article titled Meth-Related Deaths in America Are Skyrocketing
Photo: Dan Mullan (Getty Images)

Drug overdose deaths caused by methamphetamine use in the U.S. have increased sharply over the past decade, according to a new government report released Wednesday. Since 2011, the report found, annual rates of methamphetamine overdose deaths have risen across every demographic group in America and are especially high among American Indians and Alaska Natives. The findings highlight that opioids are not the only drug driving a record spike in overdose deaths in recent years.

The report was the work of scientists from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and is based on mortality data collected by the federal government.

Opioids such as fentanyl and heroin continue to account for the majority of overdose deaths annually, with deaths rising nearly every year since 2010. In 2019, just over 70,000 overdose deaths were reported, with fentanyl thought to be involved in more than half of these deaths (often, multiple drugs will be involved in a single death). But scientists and public health experts have noticed a corresponding rise in deaths from stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine. Around 16,000 deaths in 2019 were reported to involve psychostimulants with abuse potential, a category that excludes cocaine and largely represents deaths from methamphetamine.

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According to the new report, published in JAMA Psychiatry, the overall rate of methamphetamine deaths in America jumped fivefold between 2011 and 2018.

In 2011, about 1.3 out of every 100,000 Americans died from meth; by 2018, that increased to 7.3 out of every 100,000 Americans. This increase was especially pronounced in American Indians and Alaska Natives, who were already more likely to die from meth before the recent rise. In 2011, 4.5 in every 100,000 people in this group died from meth; in 2018, that increased to 20.9 per every 100,000. Meanwhile, meth-related deaths are also climbing among groups who seemed to rarely use the drug before, particularly Black Americans. Only 0.4 deaths per 100,000 were seen in that group in 2011, but the rate jumped tenfold to 4 deaths per 100,000 by 2018—accounting for the single largest increase seen in all racial groups. Deaths were highest among men across all racial groups, but rates among women have started to increase rapidly since 2014-2015.

“While much attention is focused on the opioid crisis, a methamphetamine crisis has been quietly, but actively, gaining steam—particularly among American Indians and Alaska Natives, who are disproportionately affected by a number of health conditions,” said senior study author Nora Volkow, director of the NIDA, in a statement released by the agency.

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One likely reason why stimulant-related deaths have risen in recent years is because people will often use other drugs at the same time, including the very potent opioid fentanyl. But there’s evidence that meth use in particular is increasing independently of trends in opioid use. Unfortunately, the options for treating meth use disorder are extremely limited. There are no approved medications for helping people trying to wean off meth manage their withdrawal and craving symptoms. Last week, however, NIDA-led research found evidence that a combination drug therapy can provide a modest benefit to treating these symptoms for meth users specifically, combined with standard counseling.

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Experts have said and early data suggests that 2020 will have been an even worse year for fatal drug overdoses, which will presumably include a rise in meth-related deaths as well. While there’s hope that greater access to treatment and supportive services can begin to turn the tide and lower overdose deaths, it’s likely that many more people will continue to die from meth and other drugs in the years to come.

Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

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