Humboldt County alcohol and other drug-related death rates on the rise

In 2017 out of 272 unattended deaths 49 were attributed to alcohol or other drugs. According to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, 29 percent of those were caused by methamphetamine and other stimulants.
In 2017 out of 272 unattended deaths 49 were attributed to alcohol or other drugs. According to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, 29 percent of those were caused by methamphetamine and other stimulants. Graphic by Catherine Wong — The Times-Standard

A Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office alcohol and other drugs-related deaths 2017 report released this month paints a bleak picture of rising death rates related to alcohol and narcotics use or abuse.

“Opiates are the big thing right now,” Humboldt County Chief Deputy Coroner Ernie Stewart said referring to the nationwide opioid crisis. “Our stats are showing that meth is king in Humboldt County. It’s killing more people than opioids.”

He said he’s been with the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office since 1989 and said these death rates have been rising every year.

“The amount of drugs on the street has climbed and it will continue to climb,” Stewart said.

According to the recent report, in 2017 out of 272 unattended deaths — meaning the sheriff’s office was called to respond; the report doesn’t include deaths of people in the care of doctors — 49 were attributed to alcohol or other drugs.

That is up from 43 in 2016 and 41 in 2015. Of 2017’s 49 deaths, 4 percent were due to deaths that occurred but weren’t only caused by toxic levels of drugs in the victims’ systems, 8 percent were due to drugs and alcohol, 18 percent were due to multi-drug toxicity, 20 percent were due to alcohol, 21 percent were due to opioids and the remaining 29 percent were due to methamphetamine or stimulants.

The report was prepared by sheriff’s office and Humboldt County Coroner’s Office personnel. The Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services reviewed the report.

Humboldt County Drug Task Force Lt. Bryan Quenell said the task force is focussed on disrupting and dismantling the widespread drug trafficking organizations that are bringing these drugs into the area. Though Humboldt County is know for producing a lot of marijuana, these harder drugs aren’t typically made here, he said.

“The vast majority of the heroin and methamphetamine is being manufactured outside of the country and being smuggled in,” Quenell said.

He said the task force is equally focussed on getting meth and heroin of the streets.

“Our seizures are going up every year as well,” Quenell said.

But, Stewart said, there needs to be more preventative education program funding to deter kids and teen from ever touching the stuff and recovery and addiction services.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” he said.

But there’s another piece to the puzzle, Stewart said.

“Humboldt County has a very high suicide rate and the majority of suicide victims that come through the coroner’s office, their blood toxicity [tests] show alcohol or drugs,” he said.

Stewart added that more funding for suicide prevention and mental health services will help bring down overdose death rates.

“Study after study after study have shown the majority of problems in our community are driven by drug and alcohol addiction,” he said.

The drug task force is helping educate young people and DHHS has programs for substance abuse.

“Part of drug task force’s mission is an educational component,” Quenell said.

Agents teach teachers and teens about the dangers of narcotics and teach businesses and other organizations about narcotics trends, he said.

“The [educational] program continues to expand and grow,” Quenell said.

DHHS substance use disorder administrator Sue Grenfell said there are multiple programs and resources for people who want to fight their addiction. DHHS also works with community partners and other groups fighting substance abuse, she said.

“This is a community related issue, certainly not one DHHS can solve on its own,” Grenfell said.

DHHS works with Rx Safe Humboldt on treatment and prevention, has a program that teaches doctors safe prescribing practices and offers opioid overdose reversal medication training, she said.

“The other main effort is the treatment side,” Grenfell said.

DHHS is working to increase the number of doctors who are trained to provide medically assisted treatment using substances such as suboxone. But no such medically assisted treatment option exists for meth yet, she said.

DHHS is updating its behavioral health programs and local in and outpatient treatment programs, Grenfell said.

“A big boost to that as a whole is called the drug medical expansion,” she said, adding that that would allow the department to expand services it can offer while expanding the number of services it can be reimbursed for from the state.

“We’re hoping it will go into effect July of 2018,” she said.

Hunter Cresswell can be reached at 707-441-0506.

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