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Drugs Used in Drug Overdose Deaths from 2011 to 2016

by Landmark Recovery

January 7, 2019

National Institute on Drug Abuse and Center for Disease Control and Prevention statistics released earlier this year estimate that in 2017 there was more than 72,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States. This number continues to follow a traumatic trend that the country has been seeing for the past few years. A new CDC report looks more closely at the specific drug overdose details from 2011 to 2016.

The new CDC report released in December examined the drug epidemic in the United States and looked at the drugs that were most frequently involved in drug overdose deaths during that period. The report had many findings, most of which are alarming to say the least. From 1999 through 2016 the age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths more than tripled from 6.1 per 100,000 people to 19.8 per 100,000 people. There were 41,340 drug overdose deaths in 2011, that number rose by over 20,000 to 63,632

The report looked at the top 15 most deadly drugs each year from 2011 to 2016. Three of the most interesting and lethal trends came from fentanyl, heroin, and cocaine. Today, we know how catastrophic fentanyl can be because it is constantly talked about in the media, but it can sometimes that can overshadow the dangers of other substances.

A chart showing the drug overdose deaths in the U.S. from 2011-2016.

Rise of Fentanyl

Despite fentanyl being first developed in 1959, the emergence of the drug didn’t happen until recently. A Drug Enforcement Agency guide suggests that fentanyl didn’t start to make a major appearance in law enforcement encounters until 2007 when there was an increase in fatal overdoses and . From April 2005 to March 2007 there were 1,013 fatal overdoses recorded as a result of fentanyl.

While that number is high, it is nothing compared to what the country would see in just a few years.

The number of fatal overdoses would eventually balloon to the number we are seeing now. In 2016, there were 18,335 fentanyl deaths. That is almost a 1,710 percent increase in fentanyl deaths in less than ten years.

Comparatively, there have been 15,851 total active-duty United States military deaths from 2006 to 2018. This drug killed more Americans in one year than all military conflicts have killed soldiers in the previous twelve years.


Drugs Cut With Fentanyl

One notable takeaway from the report is just how often other drugs are cut with fentanyl. This is a practice that illicit drug manufacturers have started to make more popular for a number of reasons. One being that fentanyl is an easy drug to synthesize, pair that with the fact that by cutting other drugs with fentanyl manufacturers can not only increase their profit margins but increase the addictiveness of their product, it is obvious why some drug manufacturers have elected to do this.

Because drug users do not know exactly what drugs they are putting in their body, overdoses become more likely, especially when you consider the potency of fentanyl, a drug that is 50 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine.

According to the report, two in five overdose deaths involving cocaine also mentioned fentanyl. Similarly, fentanyl was involved in 37 percent of all heroin deaths, 32 percent of morphine deaths, 28 percent of Xanax deaths.


What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is used to as a medication to relieve pain and as an anesthetic. However, in recent years it has become more popular in the illicit drug community. Because of the euphoric effects associated with the drug, it can serve as a substitute for heroin for some addicts.

Abuse of fentanyl first started in the mid-1970s but has gotten more popular in the past five years. In 2015, there were 6.5 million fentanyl prescriptions that were dispensed around the country. However, along with pharmaceutical manufacturers, there area number of illegal clandestine operations that are manufacturing the drug. According to one case study of fentanyl in Massachusetts, about two-thirds of the investigated overdoses in a six-month period involved fentanyl, 82 percent of which was produced illegally.


Climb of Heroin

While fentanyl experienced a sharp increase in drug deaths over the past few years, heroin has gone a different route. Drug overdose deaths attributed to heroin have risen steadily during the five-year period between 2011 to 2016 and has, in fact, started to slow in recent years.

From 2011 to 2013, heroin overdoses rose by 34.6 percent and 36.7 percent respectively. Meanwhile, from 2015 to 2016, the number of overdoses only rose by 19.8 percent. While this, obviously, still an increase and not a good thing, it is progress that heroin may start to level off soon.

However, while the rate of overdose increases has began to slow, the share of drug overdoses attributed to heroin has increased from 11.1 percent of all drug overdoses in 2011 to 25.1 in 2016.


What is Heroin?

Heroin is a highly addictive drug that is processed from morphine, a substance extracted from the seeds of poppy plants. Heroin is a Schedule I drug in the United States under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning that it has high potential for abuse with no currently accepted medical use treatment.

The drug comes in several forms, normally in white powder from Mexico or South America but can also come in a “black tar” or brown powder form that is generally produced in Mexico.

Heroin users are especially susceptible to overdoses because of the addictive nature of the drug. Regular heroin use can lead to developing a tolerance of the drug. As tolerance builds up, user must use more heroin to achieve the same high and intensity that the drug produced formerly at lower doses. This can lead to addicts taking a high enough dose that can cause an overdose and prove to be deadly.

This, along with the fact that heroin is one of the many drugs that fentanyl producers use target when cutting drugs makes heroin an especially deadly drug. Prolonged heroin use can lead to respiratory depression, nausea, convulsions, coma, and possible death.


Cocaine and Overdoses

Cocaine is another drug that has seen a major increase in it overdoses attributed to the drug. Cocaine consistently ranked second or third in terms of overall drug overdose deaths.

In 2011, cocaine had the second-highest number of overdose deaths at 5,070, that number increased to 11,316 in 2016 but cocaine dropped to third behind fentanyl and heroin. From 2014 through 2016, the number of drug overdose deaths involving cocaine nearly doubled.


About Cocaine Overdose

Cocaine can be snorted or injected into the veins after being dissolved in water, and crack cocaine is smoked. Cocaine is sometimes used in combination with other opiates like heroin and, as stated earlier, can be cut with other, more dangerous drugs like fentanyl, both of which make overdoses more likely. In fact, in almost 74 percent of all cocaine overdose deaths in 2016, another drug besides cocaine was involved.

The intensity of the effects depend on the dosage, method of use, and how quickly the drug reaches the body. Smoking and intravenous injection reaches the brain in seconds while snorting cocaine can be less intense and the high is not felt as quickly as it takes longer to reach the brain.

Cocaine increases the levels of dopamine in the body, the chemical that controls pleasure in the body. Due to the dopamine buildup, the user will generally experience extreme euphoria, excitement and energy. This feeling is what can cause a user to keep abusing the drug and may eventually lead to an overdose.

Cocaine overdoses occur when the user takes enough of the drug to produce the life-threatening symptoms associated with the drug that can lead to death. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Heart attacks
  • Seizures
  • Strokes
  • High blood pressure
  • Hallucinations

While there is no drug that can reverse a cocaine overdose entirely, naloxone is one type of medication that can help to reverse some of the effects of overdoses. However, it is not a guarantee.


Other Takeaways

There are a number of other important points that were revealed with the CDC report. One that has been mentioned already was just how often drugs are used in combination with other drugs.

Some other quick points that were brought up in the report include:



Oxycodone is a major drug of abuse in the country. Oxycodone deaths have been in the thousands since 2011 and caused almost 6,200 deaths in 2016.


Fentanyl Dominance

In 2016, fentanyl was involved in 29 percent of all drug overdoses.


Prescription Drugs

There are a number of prescription drugs listed in the CDC report. Some of the prescription pills listed are alprazolam, hydrocodone, and tramadol. Changes in prescribing laws around the country could help cut down on the prescription drug misuse and abuse we are seeing in the country.



Methadone, commonly used as a way for addicts to wean themselves off more serious drugs and deal with the withdrawal symptoms involved, is consistently on the list of the most deadly drugs. However, the deaths attributed to methadone may be falling. In 2011, there were 4,545 methadone overdose deaths while there were 3,493 in 2016.



One point that was not brought up in the report is how often alcohol is present in the body during drug overdoses and the role it plays. Alcohol plays a role in over 88,000 deaths every year in the country. Alcohol is one of the most deadly drugs in the country and needs to be thought of as such. Researchers need to look more closely into how alcohol and impact and affect drug use and how it can lead to more overdoses in the country.


What is Being Done?

Fentanyl and prescription drugs are the biggest problem the country faces when it comes to the drug crisis. While there hasn’t been much progress made, the wheels are turning in an attempt to try to combat the problem and bring an end to fentanyl. One recent example of this is the bipartisan bill that was recently signed into law by President Donald Trump.

The bill aims to do a lot to fight the problem. For example, it will call upon multiple agencies to work together to increase the monitoring and detection of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, raise awareness about the impact that synthetic drugs can have, expand oversight of opioid prescriptions, and much more.

While there are a lot of good measures in the bill and many consider it a smart first step, the effects of the bill will not be seen for some time. However, there are a number of other things being done to raise awareness on the issue.

One such awareness campaign is New York’s Combat Addiction. The campaign is used to bring education about the the dangers of certain drugs like fentanyl. Another major activist campaign is the Crisis Next Door. It is meant to bring awareness about the issue that prescription drug abuse can affect anyone of any age, gender, economic background. The website is filled with personal testimonies from Americans around the country.


In Conclusion

The new CDC report continues to provide evidence that our country is suffering from a drug epidemic that is killing tens of thousands of people every year. Fentanyl, heroin, and cocaine are three of types of drugs that are causing much of the deaths in the country. Fentanyl specifically, has risen to become the most deadly drug in the United States but it should not overshadow the lethality of other substances. At Landmark Recovery, we are dedicated to being a part of the solution that will help curb the drug crisis in the country. Landmark can offer patients a proper path forward, call our admissions staff today to learn more about drug rehab and alcohol rehab treatment plans.


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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.