Thursday, April 20, 2023

Annual overdose deaths in Kentucky fell for first time in four years

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

For the first year since 2018, Kentucky saw a drop in drug overdose deaths last year.  

Provisional data gathered by the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center shows that 2,127 Kentuckians died of overdose in 2022, 5 percent less than the 2021 figure of 2,257. 

"I think it's important that we note that because it ought to give us at least hope," Gov. Andy Beshear said at his weekly news conference Thursday. "Hope that progress is possible, hope that we can see fewer deaths next year than we saw this year, hope that we can get more people better and back with their families, back in society, back in a good job." 

Dana Quesinberry, co-principal investigator for surveillance of the Kentucky Drug Overdose Data to Action Program, said "We're really optimistic about this finding" because it could be an early signal that the state's prevention and intervention efforts are having an effect. It could also reflect the increased avaialbilty of Narcan (naloxone), which can stop an overdose by blocking action of the opioid(s).

"While this news is encouraging, there's still a lot of work to be done," Quisenberry said. "And we really hope that this early signal will . . . strengthen our resolve to address substance-use issues, including the diagnosis and treatment of substance-use disorders and continue to support Kentuckians . . . in their recovery and our joint recovery as we move forward." 

Beshear was asked if he expected the new availability of medical marijuana to certain people to further reduce OD deaths, "Well, I certainly hope that the medical marijuana program, or what's allowed under my executive order, is resulting in fewer people having to take opioids," he said. "So if we can take another step to decrease people's uses of opioids, if they can treat pain instead with medical marijuana, yes, I do believe that it will result in fewer opioid deaths." 

Kentucky lawmakers passed a bill to legalize medical marijuana for people meeting certain qualifications in 2025 on the last day of the 2023 legislative session, and Beshear quickly signed it into law. Last year, Beshear issued an order to use  his pardon power to allow people with 21 specified medical conditions and a doctor's certificate to possess up to eight ounces of marijuana bought legally in another state. (Illinois is the only adjoining state where non-residents can legally buy cannabis now.)

The legislature also passed a law to decriminalize possession of fentanyl test strips, which are used to detect the synthetic opioid that contributed to 73% of Kentucky's 2021 drug overdose deaths. 

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