University of Washington School of Public Health

UW SPH News: Opioids: The Leading Cause of Drug Deaths in Seattle Area

Opioids: The Leading Cause of Drug Deaths in Seattle Area


Drug deaths hit a record high of 332 in King County, in Washington state, in 2016, according to an annual report published by the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute (ADAI). Two-thirds of those deaths were caused by heroin, fentanyl and other opioids.

According to the report, led by Caleb Banta-Green, affiliate associate professor of health services at the University of Washington School of Public Health and senior research scientist at ADAI, overall county drug deaths rose from 320 in 2015. Opioids (legal and illegal) caused 219 deaths.

“The bottom line is opioid addiction is the overall driver of deaths,” Banta-Green told The Seattle Times. “People will use whatever opioid they can get. It’s just that which one they’re buying is changing a bit.”

In King County, which includes the city of Seattle, heroin deaths dropped slightly from 132 in 2015 to 118 last year, while deaths due to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids increased. Fatal overdoses related to prescription opioids, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, also increased slightly from the previous two years.

Opioids aren’t the only category of drugs causing concern. Deaths caused by methamphetamine increased nearly fivefold from 20 in 2011 to 98 last year. About half of methamphetamine-related deaths also involved an opioid.

Banta-Green works with federal, state and local government representatives and community-based agency experts to produce the yearly reports. This year’s report was published on the same day President Donald Trump declared the country’s opioid epidemic “a national emergency.”

Among other highlights in the report:

  • Weed-related analysis of wastewater testing in Seattle was available for the first time. Testing was done for one week in 2016 and the level of carboxy-THC, a residual of the chief component of cannabis, in Seattle wastewater appears to be among the highest detected in the world.
  • Cocaine use was down and marijuana use was statistically unchanged among high school sophomores over the last decade.
  • Nearly a third of all admissions to drug treatment programs were for people struggling with heroin.