The number of drug-related deaths in New Jersey could drop by a quarter this year, the first real drop in at least a decade, according to state police projections. Their data also shows an increasing number of these fatalities involving blacks and Hispanics residents and those older than 55 years.
State medical examiner reports show that overdose and other drug-related deaths are expected to drop nearly 7% in 2022 from last year, but the decline has accelerated in recent weeks. State police now estimate New Jersey could end the year with 2,422 such deaths, down about 25% from 2021 and the lowest number since 2017, when 2,737 residents lost their lives to drugs.
The drop also represents New Jersey’s “most significant progress” in curbing the opioid epidemic, according to state police Capt. Jason Piatrowski. He shared the data on Thursday during webinar organized by the Partnership for a Free New Jersey, noof profit, which works with state officials in the fight against substance abuse, as well as with the New Jersey Coordinator for Substance Abuse and Law Enforcement Strategies, or NJCARES, part of the state attorney general’s office. The decline also comes after two years of record substance abuse — and a roughly 30% increase in drug-related deaths nationwide, according to federal data — driven in large part by fear, anxiety and isolation related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have a long way to go and one overdose is too many, but we’re coming down this year,” Petrowski said. “This is a small glimmer of hope in this tragic epidemic.”
But while drug-related deaths are down overall this year among white residents as well, the picture is different for New Jersey residents of color, according to the coroner’s office. In 2015, more than three-quarters of fatal overdoses involved white people, compared to 13% for blacks and 9% for Hispanics. In 2022, white people make up just over half of those killed, while black people make up 28% and Hispanics make up 15%.
NJ is not unique
This demographic divide isn’t unique to New Jersey, according to 2020 federal data. Data from more than two dozen states, including New Jersey, show that while overdoses have jumped during the pandemic for all populations, the rise for blacks There were Americans twice that of white people, 44% to 22%. In the indigenous population, drug-related deaths increased by 39% that year; the increase was 22% among Asian communities and 21% among Hispanics Americans.
Drug-related deaths began to decline earlier this year. Weekly reports from the state medical examiner show that this decline has been accelerating recently.
Data from the medical examiner’s office released Thursday also show that overdose deaths among older New Jersey residents are on the rise, despite an overall decline this year. Nearly half of all deaths here involve residents aged 35 to 54 — something that has remained steady since 2015 — but deaths among people aged 25 to 34 have dropped from one-quarter of all overdoses in 2015 to 18% in in 2022. Meanwhile, in the 55 and older age group, the percentage of drug-related deaths doubled from 16% in 2015 to 31% this year.
These demographic trends worry Petrovsky and his colleagues. “We certainly don’t want this to continue,” he said. But he’s encouraged by the latest weekly data, which shows the number of overdoses overall is falling quickly.
Drug-related deaths began to decline earlier this year, but weekly reports The state medical examiner’s office found that this decline has recently been accelerating. The highest number of overdose deaths occurred during the second and fourth weeks of January, with 73 deaths each week. But weekly deaths have mostly remained between 45 and 65 since late February, falling to 41 in late November. Petrowski said he expects that decline to continue, leading to the lowest annual rate in years.
Counties with the highest number of deaths
Since 2012, New Jersey has lost at least 22,600 people to drugs, according to the medical examiner’s office. Many of them were residents of Essex, Camden and Atlantic counties, where the rate of fatal overdoses has been high and continues to rise. Hunterdon, Salem and Warren counties traditionally have the fewest drug deaths.
Nationwide, law enforcement agencies recorded more than 107,000 overdose deaths last year, Tim McMahon, a special agent for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration specializing in New Jersey, said during a webinar Thursday. That’s more than people killed in car accidents (97,000), deaths by suicide (46,000) or fatal shootings (41,000). Two-thirds of drug-related deaths now involve fentanyl or a similar synthetic opioid, cheap substitutes for heroin that have become virtually ubiquitous in illegal drugs.
Now there is a new threat in the form of xylazine.
“DEA Opinion [fentanyl] as the most significant drug threat in the country now,” McMahon said. The substance, usually made by one of two cartels in Mexico with chemicals imported from China, is 100 times stronger than morphine, and 6 out of 10 pills of any kind that agents now seize from drug dealers contain a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl.
“Fentanyl just creates more revenue for these cartels than heroin,” McMahon said. This makes it economically viable for them to risk an increase in overdoses.
Petrovsky of the state police said there has been a clear shift from heroin to fentanyl in New Jersey recently. In 2015, 91% of samples sent by law enforcement to a state lab for testing tested positive for heroin; this year, only 2% of the materials were pure heroin.
A new threat is now emerging in the form of xylazine, Petrowski said, an animal tranquilizer known colloquially as “trank.” Although it is similar to opioids or their synthetic cousins in that it slows breathing and heart rate, he said it cannot be reversed by the overdose rescue drug naloxone, often known as Narcan. Xylazine is now found in 35 percent of pills and other similar samples tested by the state crime lab, he added.
— Graphics by Genesis Abando