Report says meth use up across state

Alongside the national conversation over the opioid epidemic, Alaskan health professionals are seeing a rise in methamphetamine use.

A study released Tuesday by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services documents a four-fold rise in methamphetamine-related deaths in the state from 2008-2016, and a nearly 40 percent increase in amphetamine poisoning cases at hospitals in Alaska from 2015–2016.

The typical victim to die from methamphetamines from 2014–2016 was between 45 and 54 years old and lives in the Gulf Coast region, according to the DHSS study. However, mortality rates among other demographics and regions are on the rise as well, according to the study.

The Kenai Peninsula, which is included in the Gulf Coast region, has also seen an uptick in methamphetamine use, though not overwhelmingly, according to frontline workers. Change 4 the Kenai, a local coalition focused on combating the opioid epidemic, noted in its “Assessment of the Opioid Epidemic” for the Kenai Peninsula, released earlier this year, that statistics from the Serenity House treatment center’s admissions show methamphetamine use climbing. Often, methamphetamine use coincided with heroin use, according to the report.

“…Patients screening positive for heroin were most likely to also test positive for methamphetamine,” the report states. “Fifty-eight percent of positive heroin screens also showed the presence of methamphetamine. This mimics data seen in most recent (Serenity House) admissions; methamphetamine use is on the rise.”

Serenity House is the central Kenai Peninsula’s sole residential treatment facility, though patients with substance abuse have access to a detox facility in Soldotna and a number of sober living homes in the area. Data from Serenity House patients shows that from 2012–2016, patients identifying methamphatimes as their drug of choice stayed relatively steady, from 17 percent in 2012 to 19 percent in 2016, with lower years between. The percentage rose from 11 percent in 2014 to 19 percent in 2016.

Law enforcement officers deal with it relatively frequently. The Alaska State Troopers seized three meth labs in the state in 2015 and one in 2016 and seized 31.15 pounds of meth in 2014, 33.73 pounds in 2015 and 11.98 pounds in 2016, according to the 2016 Annual Drug Report.

Methamphetamine is the illegal drug that most frequently contributes to violent crime, according to statistics from the 2016 National Drug Threat Survey. Control measures on pharmaceuticals beginning in 2006 have dampened production of meth in the state, but it’s still being imported to the state, according to the report.

“Alaska law enforcement encounters methamphetamine in direct shipments from Mexico, as well as interdicting it from western states within the continental U.S.,” the report states. “The lucrative profits and low risk of detection for traffickers suggests this will continue into the near future.”

In 2016, the Kenai Police Department seized 63.75 grams of methamphetamine, worth, according to the Kenai section of the troopers’ annual drug report report. Kenai’s police officers have also been keeping track of how many calls have had meth involved, including those without arrests. In 2015, they documented 27; in 2016, it was 40; in 2017 so far, they’ve documented 25 so far, said Kenai Police Chief Dave Ross in an email.

“I’m not aware that we have seen a spike in the area, but it is not uncommon for us to encounter meth,” he said.

In 2016, the Soldotna Police Department reported seizing 32.99 grams of methamphetamine and .63 grams of powder methamphetamine, worth a combined $10,086, according to Soldotna’s section of the Statewide Drug Enforcement Unit report.

Although methamphetamine use has waxed and waned, most recently gaining ground again, it’s been obscured by the still-mounting intensity of the opioid epidemic.

“…Although the current opioid crisis has received substantial (and well-deserved) national attention, methamphetamine use continues to pose a considerable threat to the Nation’s health,” the report states.

Meth has always been around on the peninsula, but heroin and opioids have recently taken center stage, said Sara Fann, the executive director of the Cook Inlet Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, which provides group and individual counseling for those experiencing substance abuse.

“That’s what I think we’re experiencing,” she said.

The Department of Health and Social Services study notes that the rates of hospitalization for amphetamine poisoning from 2015–2016 were the highest in Anchorage, followed by the northern part of the state and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, followed by the Gulf Coast area. The total cost for the care exceeded $5.3 million, according to the study.

The DHSS also noted that meth is commonly used with other substances, creating the need for partnerships between agencies, said Dr. Jay Butler, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer and Director of Public Health, in a news release.

“Adverse health effects of methamphetamine use are increasing, and a considerable number of people who overdose on this drug are also using other substances,” he said. “It is important for state, local, and private agencies to collaborate when we are addressing substance misuse in Alaska. We need to be taking a coordinated, cooperative approach to this larger issue.”

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