Prescription Opioids Play Minor Role in Massachusetts Overdoses

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Two new studies in Massachusetts – one of the states hardest hit by the overdose crisis – highlight the role of multiple substances in most overdose deaths and how limiting the supply of prescription opioids has failed to reduce the number of drug deaths.

Researchers at Boston Medical Center's Grayken Center for Addiction analyzed toxicology reports on nearly 2,250 fatal overdoses involving opioids in Massachusetts between 2014 and 2015. Overdose data in Massachusetts is considered more reliable because it is one of the few states to extensively use toxicology testing.

Only 9 percent of the deaths in Massachusetts involved prescription opioids alone. Most of the overdoses (72%) involved illicit fentanyl or heroin, while one in five (19%) involved a combination of heroin, fentanyl or prescription opioids.

Other substances such as alcohol, marijuana, stimulants (cocaine and methamphetamine) and non-opioid medications (benzodiazepines and gabapentin) were also frequently involved.

“Using multiple substances, in addition to opioids, is the rule rather than the exception for opioid-related deaths,” researchers reported in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

“Our study draws attention to the heterogeneity of the problem at hand and that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to addressing the overdose epidemic, which is increasingly driven by polysubstance use.”


Over half of the Massachusetts overdoses involved someone with a diagnosed mental illness. Homelessness and a recent incarceration also raised the risk of a fatal overdose involving both opioids and stimulants.

"As a provider, these findings indicate a pressing need to address and treat not just opioid use disorder, but other substances that patients are misusing," said lead author Joshua Barocas, MD, an infectious disease physician at BMC. "To truly make a difference in reducing opioid overdose deaths, we must tackle issues such as homelessness and access to mental health services. This means not only investing in treatment but also implementing tailored programs that address the specific barriers to accessing care."

Opioid Prescriptions Down 39% since 2015

The number of opioid prescriptions has declined significantly in Massachusetts over the last four years, according to a recent report from the state’s Department of Public Health. In the first quarter of 2019 there were over 518,000 prescriptions filled for Schedule II opioids such as hydrocodone and oxycodone – a 39% decline from the first quarter of 2015.

But the decrease in prescriptions has failed to make much of a dent in Massachusetts’ opioid overdose rate, which peaked in 2016 with 2,100 deaths and remains stubbornly high.  



In 2018, nearly nine out of ten opioid-related deaths (89%) in the state involved illicit fentanyl, with cocaine (39%), heroin (32%), and benzodiazepines (40%) such as Xanax also commonly found.

Only about ten percent of the overdose deaths in the fourth quarter of 2018 involved prescriptions opioids, virtually unchanged from the 2014-2015 study.

90% of Massachusetts Overdoses Linked to Fentanyl

By Pat Anson, Editor

Nearly 90 percent of opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts now involve fentanyl, according to a new report that documents the rapidly changing nature of the opioid crisis. Less than 20 percent of drug overdoses in the state were linked to prescription opioids.

In the second quarter of 2018, Massachusetts health officials say 498 people died from an opioid-related overdose – the third straight quarter that opioid deaths have declined.

But the good news was tempered by the rising toll taken by fentanyl -- the synthetic opioid that’s become a deadly scourge on the black market. Fentanyl is often mixed with heroin, cocaine and counterfeit drugs to increase their potency. 

Because Massachusetts was one of the first states to conduct blood toxicology tests in overdose cases, it’s quarterly reports on drug deaths are considered more accurate than federal estimates and more likely to spot emerging trends in drug use. 


"This quarterly report provides a new level of data revealing an unsettling correlation between high levels of synthetic fentanyl present in toxicology reports and overdose death rates. It is critically important that the Commonwealth understand and study this information so we can better respond to this disease and help more people,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement.

Another trend documented in Massachusetts is the increasing role played by cocaine and benzodiazepines --- an anti-anxiety medication – in drug overdoses. In the first quarter of 2018, cocaine (43%) and benzodiazepines (42%) were involved in more overdoses than heroin (34%) and prescription opioids (19%). 



Drug experts say many cocaine users may not realize their drug has been spiked with fentanyl, while many people who buy Xanax or Valium on the black market don’t know they’re getting counterfeit medication laced with fentanyl.

“If you are using illicit drugs in Massachusetts, you really have to be aware that fentanyl is a risk no matter which drug you’re using,” Dr. Monica Bharel, Massachusetts public health commissioner told The Boston Globe. “The increased risk of death related to fentanyl is what’s driving this epidemic.”

Fentanyl is also involved in a growing number of fatal overdoses in Pennsylvania. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, there were 5,456 overdose deaths in Pennsylvania last year. Of those, over 67% percent involved fentanyl. The presence of fentanyl or its chemical cousins in overdose deaths rose almost 400% in the state from 2015 to 2017.

Most overdoses involve multiple drugs and blood tests alone do not determine a cause of death -- only which drugs were present at the time of death.

CDC Blames Fentanyl for Spike in Overdose Deaths

By Pat Anson, Editor

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new report today estimating that 63,632 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2016 – a 21.5% increase over the 2015 total.  

The sharp rise in drug deaths is blamed largely on illicit fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that has become a scourge on the black market. Deaths involving synthetic opioids doubled in 2016, accounting for about a third of all drug overdoses and nearly half of all opioid-related deaths.

For their latest report, CDC researchers used a new “conservative definition” to count opioid deaths – one that more accurately reflects the number of deaths involving prescription opioids by excluding those attributed to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Over 17,000 deaths were attributed to prescription opioids in 2016, about half the number that would have been counted under the “traditional definition” used in previous reports.

CDC researchers recently acknowledged that the old method "significantly inflate estimates" of prescription opioid deaths.

The new report, based on surveillance data from 31 states and the District of Columbia, shows overdose deaths increasing for both men and women and across all races and demographics.  A wider variety of drugs are also implicated:

  • Fentanyl and synthetic opioid deaths rose 100%
  • Cocaine deaths rose 52.4%
  • Psychostimulant deaths rose 33.3%
  • Heroin deaths rose 19.5%
  • Prescription opioid deaths rose 10.6%

The CDC also acknowledged that illicit fentanyl is often mixed into counterfeit opioid and benzodiazepine pills, heroin and cocaine, likely contributing to overdoses attributed to those substances.


West Virginia led the nation with the highest opioid overdose rate (43.4 deaths for every 100,000 residents), followed by New Hampshire, Ohio, Washington DC, Maryland and Massachusetts.  Texas has the lowest opioid overdose rate.

‘Inaccurate and Misleading” Overdose Data

The CDC's new method of classifying opioid deaths still needs improvement, according to John Lilly, DO, a family physician in Missouri who took a hard look at the government’s overdose numbers. Lilly estimates that 16,809 Americans died from an overdose of prescription opioids in 2016.

“Not all opioids are identical in abuse potential and likely lethality, yet government statistics group causes of death in a way that obscures the importance of identifying specific agents involved in deadly overdoses,” Lilly wrote in a peer reviewed article recently published in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons..

Lilly faults the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) -- which relies on a CDC database -- for using “inaccurate and misleading” death certificate codes to classify drug deaths. In its report for 2016, NIDA counted illicit fentanyl overdoses as deaths involving prescription opioids. As a result, deaths attributed to pain medication rose by 43 percent, at a time when the number of opioid prescriptions actually declined.

“That large an increase in one year from legal prescriptions does not make sense, particularly as these were being strongly discouraged,” Lilly wrote. “Rather than legal prescription drugs, illicit fentanyl is rapidly increasing and becoming the opioid of choice for those who misuse opioids... Targeting legal prescriptions is thus unlikely to reduce overdose deaths, but it may increase them by driving more users to illegal sources.”

Some researchers believe the government undercounts the number of opioid related deaths by as much as 35 percent because the actual cause of death isn’t listed on many death certificates.

“We have a real crisis, and one of the things we need to invest in, if we’re going to make progress, is getting better information,” said Christopher Ruhm, PhD, a professor at the University of Virginia and the author of a overdose study recently published in the journal Addiction.

Ruhm told Kaiser Health News the real number of opioid related deaths is probably closer to 50,000.

Lower Back Pain Linked to More Drug Use

By Pat Anson, Editor

People with chronic lower back pain are more likely to have used illicit drugs -- including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine -- compared to those without back pain, according to new research published in the journal Spine.

The study also found that people with lower back pain who had used illicit drugs were somewhat more likely to have an active prescription for opioid pain medication (22.5% vs. 15%).

Lower back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability and most people will suffer from it at least once in their lives. Although nearly a quarter of the opioid prescriptions written in the U.S. are for low back pain, medical guidelines often recommend against it.

Researchers analyzed data from over 5,000 U.S. adults who participated in a nationally representative health study and found that nearly half (49%) of those who reported lower back pain admitted having a history of illicit drug use, compared to 43% of those without back pain.

Current use of illicit drugs (within the past 30 days) was much lower in both groups; 14% versus nine percent.

The study did not differentiate between recreational and medical marijuana use, nor did it draw a distinction between marijuana use in states where it is legal and where it is not. All marijuana use was considered "illicit."

All four illicit drugs in the survey were more commonly used by people with low back pain compared to those without back pain. Rates of lifetime use were 46.5% versus 42% for marijuana; 22% vs. 14% for cocaine; 9% vs. 5% for methamphetamine; and 5% vs. 2% for heroin.

Researchers said there was no evidence that illicit drug use causes lower back pain, only that there was an association between the two that bears watching when opioids are prescribed.

“The association between a history of illicit drug use and prescription opioid use in the cLBP (chronic lower back pain) population is consistent with previous studies, but may be confounded by other clinical conditions,” said lead author Anna Shmagel, MD, Division of Rheumatic and Autoimmune Diseases at the University of Minnesota.

“Mental health disorders, for example, have been associated with both illicit substance use and prescription opioid use in the chronic low back pain population. In the context of management, however, illicit drug abuse is predictive of aberrant prescription opioid behaviors. As we face a prescription opioid addiction epidemic, careful assessment of illicit drug use history may aid prescribing decisions.”

In a recent analysis of prescriptions filled for 12 million of its members, pharmacy benefit manager Prime Therapeutics found that nearly a quarter of the opioid prescriptions were written to treat low back pain.

"Our analysis found low back pain was the most common diagnosis among all members taking an opioid, even though medical guidelines suggest the risks are likely greater than the benefits for these individuals," said Catherine Starner, PharmD, lead health researcher for Prime Therapeutics.

In a 2014 position paper, the American Academy of Neurology said opioids provide “significant short term pain relief” for low back pain, but there was “no substantial evidence” that long term use outweighs the risk of addiction and overdose.