Overdose deaths dip, even as drug fatalities rise among older, Black residents

By: - December 9, 2022 7:16 am

Drug overdose deaths in N.J. are expected to drop 8.5% this year, the biggest dip since the opioid epidemic fueled a fatality spike in 2015. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Drug overdose deaths in New Jersey are expected to drop 8.5% this year, the most significant dip the state has seen since the opioid epidemic fueled a spike in fatalities in 2015, a state police official reported Thursday.

Authorities expect drug deaths this year will fall below 2,900 for the first time since 2017, when 2,737 deaths were reported, said Capt. Jason Piotrowski of the state police’s Office of Drug Monitoring and Analysis.

To compare, 3,124 drug overdose deaths were reported in New Jersey last year, and 1,223 a decade ago, state data shows.

“We have a long way to go, and one overdose is too many, certainly. But we are trending down this year,” he said.

Still, the numbers show several problematic trends that tempered any optimism authorities have that they’re rounding the curve on the deadly epidemic, Piotrowski said.

Drug deaths have risen steadily since 2015 among Black people and people 55 and older, even as they fell in other demographics, data shows. About 28% of people who died of drug overdoses this year were Black, up from 13% in 2015, even though just 12% of New Jersey’s population is Black. And people 55 and older represented 31% of overdose deaths, up from 16% in 2015, data shows.

“We can’t have any optimism when we see this,” he said. “That’s one thing that we really need to divert as many attention and resources to. We certainly don’t want to see that continue, and we want to get a handle on that.”

While drug overdose deaths in New Jersey are declining overall, they’re up among Black people and people age 55 and older, state data shows. (Graphic courtesy of New Jersey State Police)

Piotrowski discussed the trends during a webinar held by the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey and the state office tasked with addiction response.

He said authorities haven’t figured out exactly why drug deaths have declined except among older and Black residents.

Investigators have found that drugs increasingly contain stimulants and other toxic additives, which could be contributing to the body count, Piotrowski said.

“That’s something that we’re going to study,” he said. “It might come down to just really kind of more unintentional poisonings than we’ve seen in the past.”

Other trends Piotrowski reported:

  • Essex County led the state in drug deaths, with 38 reported through Oct. 31. Camden and Atlantic counties were next, with 31 and 21, respectively.
  • The use of xylazine, an animal tranquilizer used by veterinarians that’s known as “tranq” among drug users, spiked. Forensic labs found almost 240,000 baggies containing xylazine last year — more than in the previous six years combined. That’s especially concerning because the overdose-reducing drug naloxone doesn’t work on xylazine, Piotrowski said.
  • Heroin use is down since 2015, while methamphetamine and fentanyl use jumped.



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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.