Cocaine deaths double in Oregon

From the Oregonian, January 6, 1989

The increased availability and use of “crack” cocaine in Oregon led to a record 28 deaths from cocaine overdoses in 1988 — more than double the number of cocaine deaths the previous year.

State Medical Examiner Dr. Larry V. Lewman also said Thursday that deaths from overdoses of methamphetamine — also known as “speed” or “crank” — rose even more dramatically, growing from just one in 1987 to 11 last year.

“It parallels the usage of these compounds in our society — and I don’t see it decreasing,” Lewman said. “The cocaine and methamphetamine have been steady upward trends.”

In all, 68 persons died in Oregon from cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine overdoses in 1988, most of them in the Portland area. That was more than twice the number of drug overdoses in 1987 but less than the 70 drug deaths in 1986, Lewman said.

Lewman said some drug deaths involved significant amounts of two drugs and thus are included in statistics for both those drugs. For that reason, adding the separate numbers for cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin overdoses results in a number that is higher than the actual 68 deaths.

“The bottom line is that if they wouldn’t have taken the drug, they wouldn’t have died,” Lewman said.

Heroin overdoses played a part in the largest number of Oregon’s drug deaths last year — 38 — doubling the number of heroin deaths in 1987. About 60 percent of the heroin deaths were in the Portland area, Lewman said.

Still, the heroin toll was well below the more than 50 heroin overdoses in 1986 when powerful Mexican tar heroin was a new drug on Portland’s streets, Lewman said.

Cocaine deaths, however, came in unprecedented numbers in 1988, and all but six of them were in the Portland area, Lewman said.

Noting that deaths from crack overdoses had not been seen in Oregon as recently as three years ago, Lewman estimated that half of the cocaine deaths in 1988 resulted from the use of crack, a form of cocaine that is made by mixing cocaine with baking soda and water and then smoked.

Crack is much more potent than other forms of cocaine because of its higher purity, and it is five to 10 times as addictive. Police have estimated that there are 75 to 100 crack houses selling the drug in Portland, and more than half of those are controlled by Los Angeles-area street gangs.

The other cocaine deaths primarily involved the injection of cocaine, a method that Lewman characterized as “Russian roulette with a needle” because users have no way to know the purity of the drug.

“The stuff they buy on the street does not come with the FDA seal of approval,” Lewman said. “They don’t know what they’re getting. It’s self-destructive behavior.”

The snorting of powdered cocaine rarely results in death, Lewman said.

For comparison with the Oregon figures, there were about 75 deaths involving cocaine overdoses in San Francisco during the year ending in June 1988, estimated administrative coroner Joe Surdyka.

Surdyka said there were 38 cocaine deaths in San Francisco from July 1986 to June 1987, Surdyka said.