Here’s a sobering statistic: More than 43,000 New Mexicans have died from drugs and alcohol over the last 30 years.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the number of people dying from drug overdoses and alcohol-related causes continues to get worse — fueled in part by fentanyl and methamphetamine, which are now claiming more lives than heroin and prescription opioids, according to a report presented Thursday to the Legislative Finance Committee.
New Mexico hit a grim milestone last year.
“Drug overdose and alcohol-related deaths in New Mexico reached all-time highs in 2020, even though the state has tripled spending on substance use treatment since 2014,” the report states.
Last year, 1,770 people died from alcohol-related causes and 766 from drug overdoses.
“New Mexico has long had some of the highest death rates from alcohol and drugs in the country,” the report states. “Since 1990, drug overdose deaths have increased by 572 percent and alcohol-related deaths have increased by 165 percent.”
Between 2016 and 2020, the state’s alcohol-related death rate grew from 66 per 100,000 people to 88.5.
“Similarly, from 2016 to 2020, the state’s drug overdose death rate increased by 54 percent,” the report states. “In 2019, the last year for which federal data is available, New Mexico’s overdose death rate was 40 percent higher than the national rate.”
New Mexico is not alone. Drug overdose deaths jumped nearly 30 percent nationwide in 2020, a record high of more than 93,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fentanyl and methamphetamine, which are cheaper and easier to buy on the street, are driving the increase of deadly drug overdoses in New Mexico. The two drugs contributed to 78 percent of drug overdose deaths last year. The report to state lawmakers from legislative analysts notes the coronavirus pandemic may have contributed to the spike in deaths last year.
“A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found evidence that ‘deaths of despair’ — avoidable tragedies such as suicide and drug overdose — increased by at least 10 percent relative to prepandemic levels,” the report states.
Increased access to services amid worsening death rates “indicates treatment is an essential but incomplete solution,” according to the report, which recommends the state improve its prevention and early intervention programs.
The report also notes “little progress has been made to close one of the most glaring gaps in the treatment system — the criminal justice system.”
“We know there’s a strong connection between the criminal justice system and substance use disorders, and that reducing incarceration related to substance use requires effective diversion, access to treatment while incarcerated and connections to services after release,” Cally Carswell, a program evaluator for the Legislative Finance Committee, told lawmakers. “We also know we’re not doing nearly enough of any of these things in the state.”
Provider rates have been increased and other changes have been made in recent years to bolster the state’s behavioral health safety net. However, the report recommends more work be done to improve the quality of care, boost access, increase financial incentives and build a behavioral health care workforce that better represents the state’s cultural and racial demographics.
Carswell said two of the main findings in the report seem to be in conflict with each other.
“On the one hand, we’ve made a lot of progress in expanding access to treatment and on the other, our problem continues to get worse,” she said. “This demonstrates that adequate access to treatment is of course very important but not a complete solution on its own and that the state has really got to play the long game in order to move the needle on these issues. That means making a focused effort to provide services and interventions to at-risk populations to prevent substance use disorders from developing in the first place.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.