Opioid deaths leap in Hennepin Co.; fentanyl plays deadly role

Hennepin County saw a nearly 60 percent jump in opioid-related deaths from 2015 to 2016, with the dead ranging from stillborn to age 66.

The data, released Monday, offered the latest grim evidence of the depth of the region's opioid addiction crisis.

Equally worrisome: the presence of the high-powered drug fentanyl in many of the deaths. Thirty-nine of the opiate-related deaths in Hennepin County in 2016 involved fentanyl, compared with nine in 2015, according to the report by well-known Twin Cities addiction researcher Carol Falkowski.

The one-year change in people dying from heroin and other opioid overdoses is unlike anything the Twin Cities has seen before, she said.

"Really, the magnitude of this increase is unprecedented," said Falkowski. "With methamphetamine, we saw gradual increases across multiple indicators. Same situation when crack cocaine showed up on the scene in the 1980s. There was an increase across multiple indicators. But to have such a large increase in a single indicator is really quite unprecedented."

While it's not uncommon for addicts to intentionally mix multiple drugs, the findings suggest that "in some cases fentanyl was an unexpected, added ingredient in local illicit substances sold as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, andoxycodone," Falkowski wrote in the report. "It is likely that some addicts unknowingly purchased substances that contained fentanyl, which consequently contributed to their sudden demise."

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"It is really a situation of Russian roulette using street drugs in this day and age," she said in an interview.

Falkowski noted that counterfeit pills believed to be pain medication that also included fentanyl were implicated in the overdose death of Minnesota music icon Prince in 2016.

Investigations into an additional five deaths with possible carfentanil involvement are pending, the report added. Carfentanil is a veterinary drug that is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and used to sedate elephants and other large animals.

Besides the opioid findings, the report also noted:

• Cocaine-related deaths were up 30 percent in Hennepin County and nearly doubled from 6 to 10 in Ramsey County last year.

• Methamphetamine-related deaths declined in Hennepin and Ramsey County in 2016, although treatment admissions and drug seizures continued to rise. There were 15 methamphetamine-related deaths in Hennepin County in 2016 and five in Ramsey.

• Acute alcohol toxicity was the cause of death for 19 decedents in Hennepin County in 2016, and acute alcohol intoxication was listed as a significant contributing condition in 65 additional deaths.