Reflecting national trends, meth arrests and deaths continue to climb in Virginia

By: - August 1, 2019 11:15 pm

Drug paraphernalia lies on the floor inside an abandoned home in Appalachia, Va., where neighbors say the previous residents cooked meth before they were arrested. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Methamphetamine arrests and overdose deaths are climbing in Virginia, reflecting a national trend amid a crackdown on opioids.

Seizures of methamphetamine spiked between 2017 and 2018, NPR reported, marking a national resurgence of the highly addictive stimulant that Virginia has also seen.

Preliminary data from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for the first quarter of 2019 shows that an upward trend in methamphetamine deaths has continued, with 47 deaths in the first three months of this year, making it the deadliest quarter Virginia has seen in terms of meth overdoses in at least 12 years.

The office is now projecting there will be 160 methamphetamine deaths this year, up from 127 last year. In 2015, there were only 29 deaths.

According to NPR, seizures of meth rose by 142% nationally between 2017 and 2018. In that same time in Virginia, arrests related to meth jumped from about 2,500 to 3,500, state police numbers show. In 2009, there were only 442 arrests.

“It’s a big concern,” said Rosie Hobron, statewide forensic epidemiologist with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. “We’ve been dealing with the opioid crisis for years, but we’re starting to see upticks of the non-opioid drugs.”

Some drug users have turned to meth as prescription painkillers have become more difficult to obtain. Whereas it was once known to be made in homemade batches, increasingly meth is coming into the U.S. from Mexico, particularly as the U.S. has been cracking down on opioids entering the country.

But methamphetamine is typically not as lethal as other drugs, like opioids, Hobron pointed out. Many of the meth overdose deaths seen in Virginia have been from a combination of not just meth, but fentanyl, as well — an especially deadly opioid.

Last year, 46.5 percent of the fatal methamphetamine overdoses in Virginia also involved fentanyl. Officials saw the same pattern with heroin deaths: People will use one drug, heroin or methamphetamine, sometimes without realizing that the drug dealer had mixed in fentanyl.

Potentially more drug deaths

State health officials are projecting that this year the number of fatal drug overdoses will continue its nearly 10-year upward trajectory, despite a slight decrease last year.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is currently predicting 1,546 deaths from all drugs this year, which would be 60 more than last year and nearly 500 more than five years ago.

Hobron said her office projects the number of fatalities for the year based on the previous four quarters. There were 395 deaths from all drugs — including opioids, methamphetamine, cocaine and others — in the first three months of this year, compared to 354 deaths in the fourth quarter of last year.

The projections can change from quarter to quarter, Hobron said. In the middle of last year her office was expecting a greater decline overall for the year — until that changed after a particularly deadly third quarter.

Right now, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is predicting that this year could be the deadliest that the state has seen in terms of opioid overdoses. It’s projecting nearly twice as many fatal opioid overdoses this year than Virginia saw in 2013.

“It could potentially be the highest we’ve seen,” Hobron said.

Staff reporter Ned Oliver contributed to this report. 

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Katie O'Connor
Katie O'Connor

Katie, a Manassas native, has covered health care, commercial real estate, law, agriculture and tourism for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond BizSense and the Northern Virginia Daily. Last year, she was named an Association of Health Care Journalists Regional Health Journalism Fellow, a program to aid journalists in making national health stories local and using data in their reporting. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, where she was executive editor of The Flat Hat, the college paper, and editor-in-chief of The Gallery, the college’s literary magazine.