Drug, alcohol deaths up in 2016; opioid tally decreases

Oct 12, 2017 By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

Drugs and alcohol continue to be involved in a majority of non-natural deaths in Fremont County.

In fact, this year the problem seems to have worsened.

"Drug- and alcohol-related deaths in general have gone up," Fremont County Coroner Mark Stratmoen said this week. "The overall picture is significantly higher."

A report from the coroner's office indicates that, during the first three quarters of 2016, 55 percent of non-natural deaths were drug-related.

This year that number spiked to 79 percent.

"You're looking at (an increase) from 50 percent to almost four-fifths of those deaths," Stratmoen said.

Opiods 'still a problem'

Because of that statistic, he says he isn't doing a "happy dance" about the decrease in deaths involving opiate overdoses so far this year.

"(That's) a partial statistic in terms of one category of drugs," he said. "The overall trend is still going up."

Plus, he said, opiates are "still a problem."

"We aren't seeing as great a number (of opiate-related cases) as we used to," Stratmoen said. "(But) they still are ... the No. 1 abused prescription drug."

An increase in the involvement of cannabis in deaths doesn't diminish the prescription problem, either.

Stratmoen said cannabis has replaced prescription medications as the second-most prevalent drug involved in deaths in Fremont County.

"That doesn't necessarily mean (prescription drug abuse) has gone down that must, but that cannabis has risen," he said.

No. 1 on the list is always alcohol, he added.

Motor vehicle deaths

Cannabis use has been on the rise especially when it comes to motor vehicle deaths, Stratmoen continued.

"We're seeing a lot more cannabis involved in that," he said.

His third-quarter report showed the number of vehicular deaths so far in 2017 (17) have more than doubled from the total recorded during the first three quarters of 2016 (8).

Six of this year's motor vehicle deaths were labeled homicides and took place during only two traffic incidents involving intoxicated drivers.

Eight other motor vehicle deaths involved drugs or alcohol but weren't labeled homicides because the deceased was the intoxicated driver.

That leaves only three out of 17 motor vehicle deaths so far this year that didn't involve drugs or alcohol, Stratmoen pointed out.

There is a similar trend involving seatbelt usage. Stratmoen said 13 of the 17 people who died in motor vehicle incidents this year were not wearing seatbelts - and three of the deceased were riding bicycles or motorcycles. That means only one person who died in a traffic incident this year was properly restrained.

"I'm not sure what more can be done on convincing people to wear seatbelts," Stratmoen told the Fremont County Commission this week, adding later, "We've been preaching that for years, (and) I keep harping on it."

In his interview with The Ranger, Stratmoen commended law enforcement agencies for efforts to increase traffic patrols, especially on holidays. But he also discussed past proposals in the Wyoming Legislature to make seatbelt use a primary offense.

The designation would allow police to pull someone over for failing to use a seatbelt.

Currently, a seatbelt citation can only be issued if someone is pulled over for a separate offense.

"If you get pulled over just for (not wearing a seatbelt), that's motivation for people to put it on," Stratmoen said. "But the Wyoming Legislature doesn't like legislating things that make people do things like that. Every time, it gets shot down."

Other stats

Stratmoen's report shows eight homicides have occurred so far this year in Fremont County - three more than during the first three quarters of 2016. Again, however, he noted that six of those homicides occurred during two motor vehicle incidents.

"That kind of skews (the number)," he said.

Drugs or alcohol were involved in seven of the eight homicides, six of 10 suicides and 22 of 25 accidental deaths, according to his report, and 17 percent of natural deaths were exacerbated by drugs or alcohol.

Stratmoen explained that a natural death can involve drugs and alcohol if, for example, a person was so intoxicated that he or she didn't notice a health symptom, or if someone died from alcohol withdrawal seizures.

"(Alcohol) didn't cause the issue but could contribute to the circumstances," he told the commission.

A death due to liver failure after long-term, chronic ethanol abuse also is placed in this category. Stratmoen said he sees such cases frequently.

"A lot of our natural deaths are usually long-term abuse related," he said.

Overall, drug- and alcohol-related deaths accounted for 37 percent of all coroner cases during the first three quarters of 2017.

That total number of cases is up by 28 so far this year, Stratmoen said, from 107 in 2016 to 135 in 2017. Out of the 135 cases, 33 percent are non-natural, meaning they were labeled accident, homicide, suicide or undetermined. Twenty-five were accidental - four more than during the first three quarters of 2016.

The coroner isn't called to investigate every death in Fremont County. So far this year, Stratmoen said, 259 deaths have been recorded locally.

There have been three fewer suicides so far this year than during the first three quarters of 2016, Stratmoen wrote, but the statistic is "trending up" overall and is almost three times the national average. Homicides, by contrast, have been "trending down" over the past few years, but they also are above the national average - almost double.

Traffic fatalities are at the national average to be expected for the local population, Stratmoen said. In 2015 Fremont County's traffic fatality total was four times the national rate at mid-year.

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