October 21, 2021 10:11 AM

Overdose deaths involving cocaine or meth tripled in shadow of opioid crisis

Study in veterans shows many fatal overdoses involved multiple substances; 70% of those who died with stimulants in their systems hadn’t received addiction treatment recently.

drawing of pills in blue ink with lab note written on bottom right in yellow and navy blue
Michigan Medicine

Even as the opioid epidemic dominated national attention over the past decade, the rate of overdose deaths involving cocaine, methamphetamine and other stimulants tripled, a new study in veterans suggests.

More than half of the 3,631 veterans who died from overdoses involving these drugs between 2012 and 2018 also had other substances in their systems, the study finds. In this group, most of those other substances were opioids, including both synthetic and prescription opioids.

But the other half of fatal veteran overdoses involving stimulants resulted from stimulant overdose without the presence of opioids. Of those overdoses involving stimulants and other non-opioid substances, three-quarters included alcohol as a factor in their deaths.

Most of the veterans whose overdoses were included in the study – 70% – hadn’t received any treatment in an addiction clinic in the year before they died. However, in line with the increased attention to opioids, those who died from a combination of opioids and stimulants were more likely to have received addiction treatment, or to have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder.

The study, published in Addiction by a team from the University of Michigan Addiction Center, the University of Michigan Health Injury Prevention Center and the VA Center for Clinical Management Research, shows the key role of polysubstance use by those at risk for overdose.

The authors note that better access to treatment, especially for residents of rural areas and those who have experienced homelessness, is needed for veterans and others. They also note limited medication-based treatments to help individuals reduce their use of methamphetamine or cocaine; multiple medication-based treatments are available for those who have opioid or alcohol use disorders.

The study also highlights disparities in overdose risk from stimulants. For instance, one-third of all the overdose deaths involving stimulants were in Black veterans, as were two-thirds of the deaths from cocaine alone.

Rural residents were more likely to die from methamphetamine alone or in combination with other substances; if opioids were present, they were more likely to be prescription opioids rather than synthetic opioids.

“We need to build better awareness of the role of stimulants as a risk factor for overdose, and of the need for those who have stimulant use disorders to be referred for treatment, regardless if they are also using opioids,” said first author Lara Coughlin, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in addiction who is an assistant professor in the U-M Department of Psychiatry.

She points out that people who use methamphetamine or cocaine can experience heart damage that puts them at greater risk of death, especially if they also use opioids, which depress the respiratory system.

Study’s authors include senior author and U-M/VA addiction psychiatrist Lewei (Allison) Lin, M.D., M.S., as well as Lan Zhang, Ph.D., Amy S.B. Bohnert, Ph.D., Donovan T. Maust, M.D., M.S. and Jason Goldstick, Ph.D.

The study was funded through the Injury Prevention Center’s grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (R49-CE-003085), as well as grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (AA028232) and VA Health Services Research & Development (CDA 18-008).

Paper cited: “Patient characteristics and treatment utilization in fatal stimulant-involved overdoses in the United States Veterans Health Administration,” Addiction, preproof. DOI: 10.1111/add.15714