Fentanyl a driving factor in Minnesota's record overdoses deaths in 2021

Fentanyl can be many times more deadly than heroin, but Minnesota prosecutors say the state's fentanyl laws are weaker. (Blue Earth County Sheriff's Office / Supplied)

Minnesota saw an all-time high for drug overdose deaths in 2021, a problem that health leaders say was driven in large part by fentanyl.

In 2021, Minnesota saw 1,286 deaths from drug overdoses, a 22 percent increase over the previous year. 2021 was also the first year since 2014 that Greater Minnesota (23 percent) saw a larger year-to-year increase over the Twin Cities metro (20 percent) for overdose deaths.

The Minnesota Department of Health says most overdose deaths were associated with fentanyl, including 90 percent of all opioid-related deaths. In recent years, fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, has been routinely found laced in street drugs like meth and cocaine and often used in counterfeit pills, disguised as Adderall or other drugs.

While overall opioid deaths were up (increasing from 685 in 2020 to 924 deaths last year), Minnesota saw a decrease in deaths from prescribed opioids.

Even a little fentanyl in your system can be deadly, health officials. Commissioner Jan Malcolm says the concerning trend is another reason why it's important to carry the opioid antidote naloxone.

"This increase in drug overdose deaths is alarming, but there are things we can do about it," wrote Malcolm. "One important step is to expand programs that make it easier for people to access naloxone – a medication that can reverse overdoses and save lives."

But, along with opioid-related deaths, the health department says they saw a spike in non-opioid overdoses, including deaths from methamphetamine and cocaine. Meth deaths rose 34 percent year to year, increasing from 338 in 2020 to 454 last year. Cocaine overdose deaths increased by 81 percent, going from 85 deaths to 154 years.

While deaths were up, non-fatal overdoses that were treated at hospitals decreased in 2021, falling from 14,545 cases in 2020 to 13,081 in 2020.

Still, MDH points out that for every fatal overdose in Minnesota in 2021, there were 10 non-fatal overdoses.