The New Mexico Department of Health has released troubling new data showing fatal drug overdoses in 2018 sharply increased to near record-high levels, largely due to a rise in deaths involving meth.
“It is real — we’re seeing it over and over again,” State Epidemiologist Dr. Michael Landen said in an interview Wednesday. “Law enforcement has told us that methamphetamine is their biggest problem.”
The total number of overdose deaths in the state last year was 537, a 9 percent increase from 2017 and the second highest in state history, the Health Department said in a news release, behind the 540 fatalities reported in 2014. Last year’s rise follows a few years of decline that health officials saw as a hopeful sign of a new downward trend.
For decades, New Mexico wrangled with among the highest drug overdose rates in the nation, mostly from heroin and prescription opioids, data shows. But as the state began to see some decreases in opioid-related deaths in recent years, a growing opioid epidemic gripped the nation, with distribution of deadly fentanyl spreading throughout the Northeastern states.
New Mexico’s overdose-death ranking fell from the No. 2 spot in 2014 to No. 17 in 2017.
National data on drug deaths in 2018 has not yet been released, so it’s not yet clear how New Mexico compares with other states for the year.
The decline in opioid-related deaths — those involving both prescription painkillers and heroin — continued here last year, the Health Department said. Overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines — tranquilizers such as Valium and Xanax — dropped dramatically.
But in the state that served as a backdrop for the meth-fueled hit TV series Breaking Bad, and an upcoming film sequel, the number of methamphetamine deaths has spiked.
Landen said the drug has become more available and relatively cheap. And production has moved on from the small home labs were it used to be cooked, he said. “Increasingly, there’s almost factory-like production in Mexico.”
Of the 537 fatal overdoses last year, 36 percent involved methamphetamine, up from 31 percent in 2017 and 12 percent in 2012, according to the Health Department.
Some overdoses deaths have multiple drug causes, Landen said.
While the state has targeted efforts toward reducing misuse of prescription opioids, treating addiction and making an opioid-overdose antidote, naloxone, more widely available in the past decade, Landen said it is now shifting its focus to methamphetamine — which could prove even more challenging.
Unlike heroin and prescription opioid overdoses, a meth overdose can’t be treated with a medication. And there is no known medication to treat an addiction to meth.
Landen said the Health Department does have a harm-reduction program for meth users to help stem “risky” use of the drug and can work to link people to treatment facilities.
The department recently made more beds available at Turquoise Lodge Hospital, an inpatient treatment facility in Albuquerque, he said, and is working to complete an assessment on the availability of substance abuse treatment throughout the state.