Pima County Medical Examiner

Dr. Gregory Hess

There were 263 overdose deaths in Pima County in 2016, about the same as the previous year, but deaths from methamphetamine have doubled in two years, according to a report by the Pima County medical examiner.

“Overdose deaths are more frequent than traffic deaths and have been for a number of years here and across the nation,” said Dr. Gregory Hess, the chief medical examiner. “Deaths due to methamphetamine were on the rise in 2016 with a doubling of the number of deaths from 2014.”

In 2014 there were 38 overdose deaths from meth, compared to 79 two years later. So far this year, there have been 19 overdose deaths linked to meth, according to a quarterly update provided by the office to the county.

Sixty-six percent, or 173 of all 263 overdose deaths last year, were males, and 22 percent were between the ages of 20 to 29 years old. Females comprised 34 percent, or 90, of the deaths, said Hess.

Hess said that 89 percent of these deaths were classified as accidents, 8 percent were suicide and 3 percent were undetermined.

Also, opiates — including heroin, oxycodone, methadone, morphine and fentanyl, which is a synthetic opioid narcotic — accounted for the majority of overdose deaths, either as a single drug or a component of a multi-drug overdose, said Hess. The medical examiner said the 2016 deaths were re-examined and opiates contributed to 175, or 67 percent, of the overdose deaths.

Hess said the county has not had a wave of fentanyl deaths as the Midwest and East Coast. He said he surmises addicts use what is available on the market and that cost plays a role in drug purchases.

Buyers also may not know what they are purchasing, said Hess. “They may think they bought oxycodone and are getting fentanyl instead. Or, they may buy heroin, but it is cut with other compounds.”

According to the 2017 quarterly report, from January to March opiate compounds contributed to 41 of the 60 overdose deaths. Seven deaths were due to fentanyl, and in 2016 there were 15 deaths, said Hess.

“If the first-quarter trends were to be considered a barometer for the remainder of the calendar year, I would project 240 total overdose deaths, approximately 70 percent of which may involve an opiate compound,” said Hess about the expected 2017 figures.

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Meanwhile, in June Gov. Doug Ducey declared a state of emergency on opioid overdoses. The measure was designed to get the state more information about how to handle the crisis. Ducey wants information about who is dying and where they are getting the drugs.

In a recent tweet, Police Chief Chris Magnus said officers saved two lives — including that of a 14-year-old girl — by administering Narcan, an emergency treatment for opioid overdoses. “We need to wake up to this epidemic!” he tweeted.

Last fall, the Police Department issued Narcan to its patrol officers to administer to someone overdosing on the streets.

Dr. Francisco Garcia, the Pima County Health Department director, said in a Star article last year that the cost of the nasal spray kits is a fraction of the estimated $12 million spent annually on hospital and emergency room-related visits for treating addicts.

Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at cduarte@tucson.com or 573-4104. On Twitter: @cduartestar


Carmen started at the Star in 1981 and covers the aging population. She wrote “Mama’s Santos: An Arizona Life”, a book about the Mexican and Mexican-American experience in the Southwest through stories about her family. It won 11 awards.