High Rate of Stimulant Use in Opioid ED Cases

Randy Dotinga

July 07, 2020

Nearly 40% of hundreds of opioid abusers at several emergency departments tested positive for stimulants, and they were more likely to be white than other users, a new study finds. Reflecting national trends, patients in the Midwest and West Coast regions were more likely to show signs of stimulant use.

Stimulant/opioid users were also "younger, with unstable housing, mostly unemployed, and reported high rates of recent incarcerations," said substance use researcher and study lead author Marek Chawarski, PhD, of Yale University, New Haven, Conn. "They also reported higher rates of injection drug use during 1 month prior to the study admission and had higher rates of HCV infection. And higher proportions of amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS)–positive patients presented in the emergency departments (EDs) for an injury or with drug overdose."

Dr. Chawarski, who presented the study findings at the virtual annual meeting of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence, said in an interview that the study is the first to analyze stimulant use in ED patients with opioid use disorder.

The researchers analyzed data for the period 2017-2019 from EDs in Baltimore, New York, Cincinnati, and Seattle. Out of 396 patients, 150 (38%) were positive for amphetamine-type stimulants.

Patients in the Midwest and West Coast were more likely to test positive (38%). The rates of stimulant use were 6% in Baltimore, 7% in New York, 32% in Cincinnati, and 80% in Seattle.

In general, stimulant use is higher in the Midwest and West Coast, said epidemiologist Brandon Marshall, PhD, of Brown University, Providence, R.I., in an interview. "This is due to a number of supply-side, historical, and cultural reasons. New England, Appalachia, and large urban centers on the East Coast are the historical hot spots for opioid use, while states west of the Mississippi River have lower rates of opioid overdose, but a much higher prevalence of ATS use and stimulant-related morbidity and mortality."

Those who showed signs of stimulant use were more likely to be white (69%) vs. the nonusers (46%), and were more likely to have unstable housing (67% vs. 49%).

Those who used stimulants also were more likely to be suffering from an overdose (23% vs. 13%) and to report injecting drugs in the last month (79% vs. 47%). More had unstable housing (67% vs. 49%, P < .05 for all comparisons).

Dr. Chawarski said there are many reasons why users might use more than one kind of drug. For example, they may take one drug to "alleviate problems created by the use of one substance with taking another substance and multiple other reasons," he said. "Polysubstance use can exacerbate social and medical harms, including overdose risk. It can pose greater treatment challenges, both for the patients and treatment providers, and often is more difficult to overcome."

Links between opioid and stimulant use are not new. Last year, a study of 2,244 opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts from 2014 to 2015 found that 36% of patients also showed signs of stimulant use. "Persons older than 24 years, nonrural residents, those with comorbid mental illness, non-Hispanic black residents, and persons with recent homelessness were more likely than their counterparts to die with opioids and stimulants than opioids alone," the researchers reported (Drug Alcohol Depend. 2019 Jul 1;200:59-63).

Dr. Marshall said the study findings are not surprising. However, he said, they do indicate "ongoing, intentional consumption of opioids. The trends and characteristics we are seeing here suggest a large population of persons who are intentionally using both stimulants and opioids, many of whom are also injecting."

He added that the study sample is probably higher risk than the general population since they're presenting to the emergency department, so the findings might not reflect the use of stimulants in the general opioid-misusing population.

Dr. Marshall added that "there have been several instances in modern U.S. history during which increases in stimulant use follow a rise in opioid use, so the pattern we are seeing isn't entirely surprising."

"What we don't know," he added, "is the extent to which overdoses involving both an opioid and a stimulant are due to fentanyl contamination of the methamphetamine supply or intentional concurrent use – e.g., 'speedballing' or 'goof balling' – or some other pattern of polysubstance use, such as using an opioid to come down off a methamphetamine high."

The National Institute on Drug Abuse funded the study. The study authors reported no relevant disclosures. Dr. Marshall reported that he has collaborated frequently with two of the study coauthors.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com.

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