New Mexico has a chronic substance-abuse problem, but one epidemiologist calls an 18 percent decline in drug deaths last year encouraging, says the Santa Fe New Mexican. Heroin – the biggest killer – took fewer lives, as did alcohol, cocaine, and prescription drugs. In all, there were 56 fewer overdose deaths last year than in 2003. New Mexico still leads the nation in drug-overdose deaths. Death rates can fluctuate from year to year based on such factors as drug-trafficking patterns, drug busts, and public-health initiatives. Nina Shah, a drug-abuse epidemiologist for the state Department of Health, said the 2005 overdose count is incomplete but looks hopeful so far.
Since 1990, fatal overdoses in New Mexico had been steadily increasing. With 308 deaths and a rate of 16.8 deaths per 100,000 people, 2003 holds the record thus far. Last year's death rate mirrors that of 1998, when the U.S. Department of Justice and Congress held hearings to zero in on northern New Mexico. The proportion of fatal overdoses caused by heroin fell from 50 percent in 2002 to 40 percent in 2004; Shah gave some credit for the change to the state's Narcan program. Nearly a thousand people have been trained to use Narcan , a prescription drug that reverses the effect of heroin and other opiates, and it has prevented death in at least 116 cases. Methadone deaths are on the rise again. The painkiller is widely used to get addicts off heroin, and a growing number of doctors prescribe it to patients suffering from pain. The narcotic caused 28 deaths in 2002, 34 in 2003, and 40 in 2004. Shah sees no concrete evidence that methadone clinics, which treat addicts with a liquid form of the heroin substitute, are to blame for the increase.