Deaths from cocaine, after holding steady for many years, increased an alarming 52% between 2015 and 2016, according to the CDC, with the trend continuing in the most recent federal data. The stimulant is now killing approximately 13,000 people a year, on track to rival painkiller pills and heroin.
Although researchers don’t fully understand why cocaine overdoses are spiking, they know that one of the biggest drivers is fentanyl. Once an obscure hospital drug, the synthetic opioid has taken over the US illicit drug market in just five years, killing tens of thousands of people including Prince and Tom Petty.
In 2016, a synthetic opioid such as fentanyl showed up in more than 83% of the cocaine-related overdoses in New Hampshire; 70% of cocaine-related deaths in Massachusetts; nearly 64% of those in Maine; and 54% of those in Connecticut. Since cocaine is a stimulant and fentanyl a depressant, mistaking the two might be especially dangerous.
“They might take what they think is cocaine and not get the feeling they expect — in fact they get the opposite — and so they think they have to take more to get what they expect,” said Baltimore City Health Commissioner Leana Wen. “Instead they give themselves a fatal overdose of fentanyl.”
Good weather and a peace deal in Colombia means the US is due for more imports of cocaine. The South American country — the source of most US cocaine — reported an unexpectedly high yield for coca last year, the second bumper crop in a row. The street price of a gram of cocaine dropped from $220 in 2014 to $156 in 2016, according to the DEA, and will continue to drop as more supply rolls in.
Nearly 1.5 million adults use cocaine every month in the US. That’s almost three times higher than the estimated number of people with a heroin use disorder. With the price of cocaine dropping and supply expanding, an increase in cocaine use would come at exactly the wrong time, triggering a new phase of the overdose crisis.