From the Journals

Synthetic opioid use up almost 800% nationwide


A changing landscape

Researchers said the strong correlation between overdose deaths and UDT results for synthetic opioids and methamphetamine are likely explained by the drugs’ availability and lethality.

“The most important thing that we found was just the strength of the correlation, which goes right to the heart of why we considered correlation to be so critical,” lead author Penn Whitley, senior director of bioinformatics for Millennium Health, told this news organization. “We needed to demonstrate that there was a strong correlation of just the UDT positivity rates with mortality – in this case, fatal drug overdose rates – as a steppingstone to build out tools that could utilize UDT as a real-time data source.”

While the main goal of the study was to establish correlation between UDT results and national mortality data, the study also offers a view of a changing landscape in the opioid epidemic.

Overall, UDT positivity for total synthetic opioids increased from 2.1% in 2013 to 19.1% in 2020 (a 792.5% increase). Positivity rates for all included drug categories increased when synthetic opioids were present.

However, in the absence of synthetic opioids, UDT positivity decreased for almost all drug categories from 2013 to 2020 (from 7.7% to 4.7% for cocaine; 3.9% to 1.6% for heroin; 20.5% to 6.9% for other opioids).

Only methamphetamine positivity increased with or without involvement of synthetic opioids. With synthetic opioids, meth positivity rose from 0.1% in 2013 to 7.9% in 2020. Without them, meth positivity rates still rose, from 2.1% in 2013 to 13.1% in 2020.

The findings track with an earlier study showing methamphetamine-involved overdose deaths rose sharply between 2011 and 2018.

“The data from this manuscript support that the opioid epidemic is transitioning from an opioid epidemic to a polysubstance epidemic where illicit synthetic opioids, largely fentanyl, in combination with other substances are now responsible for upwards of 80% of OD deaths,” Dr. Jackson said.

In an accompanying editorial Jeffrey Brent, MD, PhD, clinical professor in internal medicine at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora, and Stephanie T. Weiss, MD, PhD, staff clinician in the Translational Addiction Medicine Branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Baltimore, note that as new agents emerge, different harm-reduction strategies will be needed, adding that having a real-time tool to identify the trends will be key to preventing deaths.

“Surveillance systems are an integral component of reducing morbidity and mortality associated with illicit drug use. On local, regional, and national levels, information of this type is needed to most efficiently allocate limited resources to maximize benefit and save lives,” Dr. Brent and Dr. Weiss write.

The study was funded by Millennium Health and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Full disclosures are included in the original articles, but no sources reported conflicts related to the study.

A version of this article first appeared on


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