After unexplained dip, drug-related deaths in Travis County increased 20% in 2018

Drug-related deaths increased 20% year over year in Travis County, according to the Travis County Medical Examiner's 2018 annual report.

Drug-related deaths increased 20% year over year in Travis County, according to the Travis County Medical Examiner's 2018 annual report.

Drug-related deaths in Travis County increased 20% year over year, from 188 in 2017 to 226 in 2018, according to the Travis County Medical Examiner’s 2018 annual report.

This follows what Chief Medical Examiner Keith Pinckard called a “small but measurable decrease in drug-related deaths” in 2017 at a May 23 Travis County Commissioners Court meeting. Pinckard said his staff is “not sure why” the dip occurred but that it also occurred in other counties around the state.

Drug-related deaths increased 14% from 2016 to 2018, according to the same report.

Drug-related deaths in surrounding counties that rely on the TCME for autopsy services increased 76% during the same period. The TCME has contracts with 43 counties, most of which are in Central and Southeast Texas.

While drug-related deaths are on the rise locally, they are not at the crisis level seen elsewhere.

“We certainly have not experienced the tremendous increase in opioid deaths that other regions in the country have seen, for example the northeast [and] the midwest,” Pinckard said.

The majority of drug-related deaths—165—involved illicit drugs, which are illegal to make, sell or use.

Heroin was the most fatal, cited in 73 cases in 2018, up 74% from 42 cases in 2017. It was followed by methamphetamine, cited in 67 cases, up 49% from 45 cases in 2017, and cocaine, cited in 66 cases, up 65% from 40 cases in 2017.

Prescription drugs were cited in 54 cases in 2018, down from 60 cases the year before.

The prescription drugs cited in drug-related deaths include alprazolam, a benzodiazepine commonly marketed as Xanax that is used to treat anxiety, and a variety of narcotics, including hydrocodone, methadone and oxycodone.

While most prescription drugs cited saw fewer fatalities in 2018 than in 2017, alprazolam was a notable outlier. The drug was cited in 37 cases in 2018, up 37% from 27 cases the year before.

While men were significantly more likely to die of drug-related causes, accounting for 179—or 79%—of deaths in 2018, drug-related deaths cut across every age group and race.

The following graphic breaks down by race drug-related deaths in Travis County in 2018, the county's population in 2018 and state jail felonies, which include nonviolent drug charges, in the county in 2017. The data comes from the TCME’s 2018 annual report, the U.S. Census Bureau and the county’s jail population booking database.

“Those [drug-related death] numbers, compared to our criminological numbers, are so different as to call into question what the heck is happening,” Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said, pointing out the racial disparity in arrests and sentences for drug-related charges.

By Emma Freer
Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her beat includes the Travis County Commissioners Court and local business news. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.


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