From the Journals

Synthetic opioid use up almost 800% nationwide


Synthetic opioid use in the United States increased by almost 800% over 7 years, new research shows.

The results of a national urine drug test (UDT) study come as the United States is reporting a record-high number of drug overdose deaths – more than 80% of which involved fentanyl or other synthetic opioids and prompting a push for better surveillance models.

Researchers found that UDTs can be used to accurately identify which drugs are circulating in a community, revealing in just a matter of days critically important drug use trends that current surveillance methods take a month or longer to report.

vice president for scientific affairs, Millennium Health, San Diego, California

Dr. Steven Passik

The faster turnaround could potentially allow clinicians and public health officials to be more proactive with targeted overdose prevention and harm-reduction strategies such as distribution of naloxone and fentanyl test strips.

“We’re talking about trying to come up with an early-warning system,” study author Steven Passik, PhD, vice president for scientific affairs for Millennium Health, San Diego, Calif., told this news organization. “We’re trying to find out if we can let people in the harm reduction and treatment space know about what might be coming weeks or a month or more in advance so that some interventions could be marshaled.”

The study was published online in JAMA Network Open.

Call for better surveillance

More than 100,000 people in the United States died of an unintended drug overdose in 2021, a record high and a 15% increase over 2020 figures, which also set a record.

Part of the federal government’s plan to address the crisis includes strengthening epidemiologic efforts by better collection and mining of public health surveillance data.

Sources currently used to detect drug use trends include mortality data, poison control centers, emergency departments, electronic health records, and crime laboratories. But analysis of these sources can take weeks or more.

professor and associate dean for Clinical and Translational Research at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio

Dr. Rebecca Jackson

“One of the real challenges in addressing and reducing overdose deaths has been the relative lack of accessible real-time data that can support agile responses to deployment of resources in a specific geographic region,” study coauthor Rebecca Jackson, MD, professor and associate dean for clinical and translational research at Ohio State University in Columbus, said in an interview.

Ohio State researchers partnered with scientists at Millennium Health, one of the largest urine test labs in the United States, on a cross-sectional study to find out if UDTs could be an accurate and speedier tool for drug surveillance.

They analyzed 500,000 unique urine samples from patients in substance use disorder (SUD) treatment facilities in all 50 states from 2013 to 2020, comparing levels of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, synthetic opioids, and other opioids found in the samples to levels of the same drugs from overdose mortality data at the national, state, and county level from the National Vital Statistics System.

On a national level, synthetic opioids and methamphetamine were highly correlated with overdose mortality data (Spearman’s rho = .96 for both). When synthetic opioids were coinvolved, methamphetamine (rho = .98), heroin (rho = .78), cocaine (rho = .94), and other opioids (rho = .83) were also highly correlated with overdose mortality data.

Similar correlations were found when examining state-level data from 24 states and at the county level upon analysis of 19 counties in Ohio.


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