Report: Alaska’s meth-related deaths quadrupled in last decade

Methamphetamine-related fatalities have increased fourfold in Alaska over the last decade, according to a state epidemiological report released Tuesday.

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The increase in meth-related mortality — which health officials described as a “surge” — comes as Alaska continues to grapple with an opioid epidemic that led Gov. Bill Walker to declare a public health disaster.

According to the Tuesday report by the state Section of Epidemiology, a comparison of three-year averages shows an increase from 1.4 methamphetamine-related deaths per 100,000 people to 5.8 such deaths per 100,000. The report states there were also increases in nonfatal meth-related hospitalizations in recent years, among other adverse health impacts.

The report shows methamphetamine deaths in every region of the state and among a wide demographic range, though meth use among teenagers appears to have dropped slightly. The epidemiologists noted the highest rate of methamphetamine-related fatalities was among 45-to-54-year-olds.

Unlike opioid overdoses, which are characterized by drastically slowed breathing, methamphetamine can cause an increase in heart rate and breathing that sometimes leads to heart attack or stroke.

But the recent report confirms what health officials have known for a while: Methamphetamine was often not the only drug used by the people who had overdosed. About half of those whose deaths were directly attributed to methamphetamine had also used opioids, which include heroin or prescription pain medication.

Dr. Jay Butler, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said it is not uncommon for someone getting their opioid fix — which comes with a sedative effect — to also use meth as a pick-me-up.

“Balancing the effects of the two is one of the reasons, sometimes, methamphetamine and opioids are used together,” Butler said. “Sometimes this is called a ‘trainwreck,’ sometimes called a ‘speedball.’ I think what’s different, more recently, is just that the overall rates have seemed to have increased.”

At least in part, Butler said that seems to be a result of higher supply meeting higher demand. On the supply side, he said there is evidence of more methamphetamine on the Black Market at cheaper prices.

As for why demand seems to be on the rise, though, Butler said that is more complicated problem, and therefore requires a multi-pronged solution.

“We have to have comprehensive approaches to addressing drug use,” Butler said. “Just taking molecule-specific approaches, and thinking if we focus solely on opioids we have nothing else to worry about is really short-sighted, and we need to get into some of the underlying reasons of supply and demand that drive addiction in our state and in our country.”