Fatal drug overdoses in Connecticut have more than doubled since 2012

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According to statistics the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner released this week, the number of accidental intoxication deaths in Connecticut has more than doubled since 2012.

Last year, the statistics show, 723 deaths were ruled as caused by accidental intoxication, with heroin contributing to 415 of them.

In 2014, those numbers were 568 and 327, respectively. Two years before that, they were 357 and 174.

"The numbers are higher than our projection based on the first nine months of the year," Chief Medical Examiner Dr. James R. Gill said via email. "It seems that Fentanyl has been driving some of that increase."

Based on overdose fatality numbers through September, the office had predicted 679 total deaths for all of 2015, with heroin playing a role in 387.

At that time, officials estimated Fentanyl would contribute to 146 of the overall accidental intoxication deaths. That number ended up being 186.

In all but four of the 18 categories — which include the drug or drug combination that caused the death — the 2015 numbers were higher than originally estimated.

Fentanyl, which is 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin, is a synthetic opiate whose intended use is for patients with severe pain, especially those with cancer.

Gill said the illicit Fentanyl used in many of the 2015 overdoses is usually manufactured in China or Mexico and smuggled into the country.

"Because it is so potent, a smaller amount of Fentanyl is needed than for heroin to result in the same effects," Gill said. "Because of its potency, it may be more difficult for a drug dealer or drug addict to properly dose it and so they end up taking too much."

The numbers, of course, don't include those who've been part of a local surge in heroin overdoses that Lawrence + Memorial Hospital officials said began on Jan. 27 with 12 overdoses in a two-day period.

On Friday, L+M officials said they'd treated 28 patients for heroin overdoses since Jan. 27 and noted that one person who had overdosed on heroin died before making it to the hospital.

In response to the overdoses, local departments banded together Feb. 1 to create the Regional Community Enhancement Task Force, pledging additional personnel and resources to target the heroin issue while also looking at new ways to help those suffering from opioid addiction.

Police from Groton Town, Groton City, Waterford, Stonington, Norwich, Ledyard and New London, along with representatives from East Lyme, Montville, Mashantucket Pequot, Adult Probation, Parole and the Connecticut State Police, are participating in the effort.

Already, the task force has made multiple arrests, including the arrest of three men on heroin and crack cocaine-related charges in two separate cases in Norwich.

Politicians have reacted to the local heroin overdose spike, too, with local officials and state legislators from the region getting together as recently as Thursday at a Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments legislative committee meeting to discuss the issue.

In addition, state Rep. John Scott of Groton has proposed legislation to ensure pharmacists issue abuse-deterrent opioid options when they're prescribed; U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, has sent a letter asking President Barack Obama for emergency funds to help states combat opioid and heroin abuse; and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has filed legislation that would increase first responders' and residents' access to naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug.

l.boyle@theday.com

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