Ill. bucks U.S. trend as drug deaths rise

Only three states — Nebraska, Louisiana, and Delaware — suffered worse increases in overdose deaths, and only five states had more OD deaths overall

The nation is fighting an opioid epidemic, but as overdose deaths declined slightly nationally they rose 16.8 percent in Illinois last year. (Shutterstock)

The nation is fighting an opioid epidemic, but as overdose deaths declined slightly nationally they rose 16.8 percent in Illinois last year. (Shutterstock)

By Ted Cox

Illinois bucked a national trend last year as deaths from drug overdoses rose while they declined slightly across the rest of the United States.

The National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released new data Wednesday finding that a provisional count of national drug-overdose deaths declined slightly, 0.9 percent, nationwide to 70,652 in the 12-month period ending last June.

In Illinois, however, the number of OD deaths rose from 2,482 the year before to 2,900 over the same 12-month period.

The 16.8 percent increase was one of the highest in the nation. Only three states suffered worse increases: Nebraska at 38 percent, Louisiana at 19.3 percent, and Delaware at 17.1 percent. But all three had far fewer OD deaths overall, and Nebraska’s rise was particularly steep because of the few deaths previously reported. The state registered only 167 OD deaths overall in the 12 months ending last June.

Only five states had more OD deaths than Illinois last year: California at 5,510, Florida at 5,222, Pennsylvania at 5,070, Ohio at 4.197, and Texas at 3,079. But Ohio actually saw its count drop by more than a fifth, 21.4 percent, and Pennsylvania also registered a double-digit decline, 12.5 percent. Florida registered an 8.9 percent decline, while California OD deaths rose 7.2 percent. Illinois closed in on Texas for fifth place, as the Longhorn State registered a smaller 5.6 percent increase.

The counts are considered provisional and are based on existing data and the closest possible estimates drawn from previous reports. The National Center for Health Statistics explains: “Provisional counts are often incomplete and causes of death may be pending investigation resulting in an underestimate relative to final counts. To address this, methods were developed to adjust provisional counts for reporting delays by generating a set of predicted provisional counts.”

Drug deaths have been on the rise in previous years as the nation suffers through an opioid-abuse crisis that has also driven users to cheaper — and more uncertain — heroin purchased on the street through the black market. A study released last year found areas that supported President Trump were particularly prone to “deaths of despair.” Another study found that opioid deaths tended to be heavier in “Trump country,” areas that voted for the president in 2016, data borne out in Illinois.

Researchers took pains in both instances to point out that the data didn’t suggest causality one way or the other, but that citizens seeking a solution to problems in drug abuse might also be prone to seeking riskier, more unconventional solutions politically.

Illinois also has been seeking unconventional solutions to the opioid-abuse crisis. Gov. Rauner signed a bill into law last summer allowing opioid addiction as one of the permissible conditions for medical marijuana. The state Department of Public Health is preparing rules for its Opioid Alternative Pilot Program to be set by the end of the month, basically allowing Illinois residents to exchange an opioid prescription for medical marijuana, and dispensaries are preparing for what’s expected to be a considerable increase in business.