NM, ABQ struggle under weight of drug epidemic

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Editor’s Note: Today the Journal starts a three-day series on the impact and pervasiveness of drug use in New Mexico — with a spotlight on what first responders and our judges see day in and day out on Albuquerque’s streets.

As she watched her father waste away from AIDS — contracted from a dirty needle after years of drug use — Roxanne Lujaun began using heroin herself.

Six months after he passed, Lujaun’s mother died from an overdose.

Now, seven years later, the 31-year-old Albuquerque resident says she has a daily habit she can’t kick.

“You would think I would have ran the opposite way but no, I kind of went diving right into it,” she said, adding that it was too hard to cope with her parents’ deaths while sober.

Lujaun said she’s a caregiver for a family friend, and has three children, but heroin consumes her days. She wakes up aching for a hit and spends her hours trying to feel better.

“I go do what I can that’s legal to get money and try to stay well and not be sick so I can function like a normal human being,” Lujaun said. “When you’re sick … I don’t wish it on anyone.”

Lujaun’s story mirrors that of thousands of New Mexicans struggling with addiction and drug use in Albuquerque and around the state.

But the repercussions of drug use reverberate far beyond individuals — it’s a driving factor behind many property and violent crimes, it’s behind the scourge of needles in city parks and public spaces, and it brings thousands of people to emergency rooms every year.

For years New Mexico had the highest or second highest rate of overdose deaths in the country, although in recent years its rank plummeted from first in 2009 to 17th in 2017 as pockets up and down the East Coast and the Midwest experienced a surge, according to data from the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Even in 2017 we still had the highest drug overdose rate west of the Mississippi,” said Dr. Michael Landen, the state epidemiologist for the New Mexico Department of Health. “The states where rates were surpassing ours were all on the East Coast.”

Spike in meth

Last year drug overdose deaths in New Mexico fell just three short of the state’s record high in 2014.

The 537 overdose deaths in 2018 — a rate of 26.6 per 100,000 — make up a 9% increase over the previous year and were almost entirely fueled by a jump in methamphetamine overdoses, according to data collected by the NMDOH.

In fact, over the past several years, as deaths from other types of drugs have decreased slightly or remained relatively constant, meth deaths have spiked dramatically around the state — from 58 in 2012 to 194 in 2018.

Landen said this has a lot to do with the drug becoming easier to get and cheaper to buy. Most of it now comes from outside the United States.

“The old way of producing meth was in somebody’s house, in New Mexico or some other state in the United States,” Landen said. “Now there is factory production of meth. It’s pure, more potent and tends to be cheaper and very available. The sense is the availability has tracked with the increase in overdose deaths.”

While there is medication like suboxone and methadone to treat opioid dependence and Naloxone, which reverses an opioid overdose, there isn’t anything that treats meth use.

“Funding and attention has been directed primarily to opioid overdose deaths — it’s important to focus on those — but the current challenge in New Mexico and some other western states in particular is how to deal with methamphetamine deaths,” Landen said.

Shocking crimes

In recent years there have also been several shocking and high-profile killings in the Albuquerque area that can be traced back to drug use — whether it’s a suspect retaliating for a debt, high on drugs at the time, or robbing an innocent victim to fund a habit:

The $40 drug debt that ended someone’s life. A half-cocked plan by a group of friends, high on meth, to kill a man with a crossbow and bury his body in a shallow grave the next county over. Four homicides during a drug-fueled robbery spree that concluded with a suspect shooting and killing a 25-year-old man in order to steal his wallet in the driveway of his family’s home in a Foothills neighborhood.

And just a couple of months ago police say a man in the depths of a meth-powered paranoid delusion shot and killed a stranger near the Big I. The victim was found slumped over his steering wheel, shot in the head, his truck riddled with bullets.

Plus, police say, nearly every stolen vehicle that’s recovered is found with needles, paraphernalia and other remnants of drug use scattered throughout the interior.

“It is fair to say a majority of the criminal referrals we receive for cases such as stolen cars, property crimes, burglaries and robbery cases are directly tied to drugs or drug use in our community,” said Michael Patrick, a spokesman for the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

Impact on health care

Drug use and its effects ripple through hospitals, too.

Dr. Brandon Warrick, who specializes in emergency medicine, medical toxicology and addiction at the University of New Mexico Hospital, estimates drug use is behind 20% to 25% of the visits to the emergency department at UNM Hospital.

“You might get a trauma in where the person who hit them was driving under the influence, or had a substance use disorder and that’s what contributed to the accident,” Warrick said. “Or a person is using injectable drugs and has developed a skin abscess or an infection and is presenting to the emergency department for help treating the skin infection from using needles on the street.”

According to national data from 2013 to 2016, New Mexico had the second highest rate of people living with Hepatitis C — an infection that can be spread through contaminated needles, much like AIDs and wound botulism.

Landen said drug use can also complicate more common diseases and infections such as diabetes, pneumonia and heart disease.

“There are substantial ramifications of drug use that go beyond drug overdose,” Landen said. “Drug overdose is just telling part of the story. But it is a very central indicator in that if we can get that drug overdose death rate down, then these problems also decrease.”

‘A lot of firsts’

In many ways New Mexico has been on the front lines fighting the opioid epidemic and has taken several steps addressing prevention of addiction and mitigating the harm that comes from it.

In fact, the National Safety Council found in its 2018 report that New Mexico was one of only three states to adopt all of its recommended actions, including mandating continuing education for doctors prescribing opioids, requiring drug overdose data to be reported, and making Naloxone widely available.

“We are the first state with statewide syringe services,” Landen said. “The first state to have an overdose prevention program, the first state to pass a Good Samaritan Law. There are a lot of firsts.”

It was at one of these services that the Journal met Lujaun.

Standing on the sidewalk next to a vacant lot overgrown with weeds, she discussed her struggle with addiction — which included getting sober about two years ago before relapsing — as she picked up supplies at a needle exchange outreach program run by Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless the last Friday in September.

Lujaun was one of 189 people who participated in the exchange that day, and she said she makes it a point to visit every week. Gesturing to her skinny arms crisscrossed with scars and scabs, she said she looked a lot worse before she started using clean needles.

And she credits the exchange with keeping her from getting the same disease that killed her father.

“If they weren’t out here, there would be so much more of us with AIDS, Hepatitis C, stuff like that,” Lujaun said. “I’ve been a user for eight years and I don’t even have Hepatitis C. If they weren’t out here I probably would.”

Rural areas hit hardest

Rural counties throughout the state have been hit the hardest by the drug epidemic — whether you’re looking at deaths from heroin, prescription pills or methamphetamine.

According to the most recent report from the New Mexico Department of Health, which draws on data from 2013 to 2017, Rio Arriba County’s rate of 89.9 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 was more than 3½ times the state’s rate. Other far-flung rural counties, such as San Miguel, Guadalupe, Lincoln, Grant and Hidalgo, had rates almost double the state’s rate.

In 2018:

SIERRA COUNTY had the highest rate of overdose deaths from methamphetamine — 67.73 per 100,000 people.

MORA COUNTY had the highest rate of overdose deaths from heroin — 37.47 per 100,000 people.

HIDALGO COUNTY had the highest rate of overdose deaths from prescription pills — 55.37 per 100,000 people.

COLFAX COUNTY had the highest rate of overdose deaths from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids — 14.31 per 100,000 people.

BERNALILLO COUNTY — as an urban county with about a third of the state’s population, Bernalillo generally reflects the state’s overdose rate and tends to hover in the middle of the rankings. However, this changes with fentanyl overdoses: last year, Bernalillo County was ranked third in that category, with a rate of 5.83 deaths per 100,000 people.

Note: All rates are age-adjusted.

Coming Monday: A look at what law enforcement officers see day in and day out on Albuquerque’s streets.

For the full project:

7 2 h o u r s by Albuquerque Journal.

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