DC overdose deaths soar to record high as fentanyl has ‘taken over the drug supply’

Opioid overdose deaths have been trending upward in the nation’s capital for years, and a new report from the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner shows they hit a record high last year.

Throughout 2023, there were 518 opioid-related deaths in the District, according to the report.

That marked a 12% rise from the year before, and it amounted to 43 deaths every month.

To put that in perspective, D.C. received a lot of negative attention for having 274 homicides last year, but the number of opioid deaths was 89% higher than that.

It was largely driven by the prevalence of the dangerous and powerful opioid fentanyl.

The percentage of D.C. overdose deaths involving fentanyl was at 62% in 2016, but that figure has now hit 96%, according to the report.

“A lot of cities are struggling with increased numbers of people dying from fentanyl,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a public health professor with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“It has really taken over the drug supply,” Sharfstein said. “Increasingly, fentanyl is getting into cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs sometimes deliberately and sometimes inadvertently.”

According to the report, about 71% of fatal opioid overdoses in D.C. have occurred among adults between the ages of 40 to 69 years old.

They’ve mostly been men, and 84% have been Black residents.

From 2017 through 2023, overdoses were most prevalent among D.C. residents of Wards 5, 7 and 8, the report showed.

Sharfstein said public health officials need to focus on protecting people who use drugs and help them quit.

“The most important thing is to make sure that every interaction with someone who uses drugs provides an opportunity to enter effective treatment,” Sharfstein said. “Everyone should be doing that, including doctors’ offices, hospitals and even ambulances now can start people on treatment.”

Illegal drugs that are often used recreationally, such as cocaine, should be considered more dangerous than ever before, Sharfstein added.

“Whatever people are using could be contaminated with fentanyl, and just a tiny bit could be fatal,” Sharfstein said. “If you are going to use drugs, have naloxone handy and have somebody else who could deliver it, regardless of what drugs you’re using.”

Naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, can save a person’s life by stopping the symptoms of an opioid overdose.

Sharfstein noted that the federal government has established 988 as a number that people can call to seek treatment for substance abuse or urgent mental health challenges, such as suicidal thoughts.

“For people who are in treatment for opioid addiction, their risk of death drops dramatically,” Sharfstein said. “It is possible for people to break the grip of addiction and regain control of their lives.”

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Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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