CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — New research into methamphetamine and opioid use recently discovered a “staggering increase” in the number of deaths tied to co-use of the two drugs.

A recent study led by U of I professor Rachel Hoopsick found that the U.S. methamphetamine mortality rate skyrocketed fiftyfold between 1999 and 2021. 61% of these deaths involved co-use of meth with either heroin or fentanyl.

“We looked at trends from 1999 to 2021 and we saw this staggering increase in methamphetamine mortality accompanied by a proportional increase in those deaths that also involved heroin or fentanyl,” Hoopsick said.

Data from the CDC showed that 52,397 deaths were attributed to meth use in 2021, compared to just 608 in 1999. Much of the increase in meth-related mortality happened between 2010 and 2021, with no signs of it slowing down.

“We knew from behavioral studies that the use of stimulants, in general, as well as the use of stimulants with opioids has been increasing over the past decade or two,” Hoopsick said. “But we didn’t know how deadly it was becoming. I think what is different now versus 10 years ago is we have a much more toxic unregulated drug supply here in the U.S.”

Part of that unregulated drug supply is illicitly manufactured fentanyl, the potency of which has skyrocketed. Meth by itself can also be deadly, but its toxicity does not appear to have increased.

“Some of the newer methamphetamine deaths may have involved the unintentional co-use of fentanyl,” Hoopsick said. “It’s possible that the supply of methamphetamine was adulterated with fentanyl or contaminated by fentanyl at some point in the drug-manufacturing process.”

Hoopsick added that some meth users choose to add an opioid to meth in the hopes countering the stimulant effects, preventing or reversing an overdose. This is a myth, however. Hoopsick said it doesn’t work and may be making the mix more toxic.

Hoopsick said the impetus the study came from her own observations during a community-based research product at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.

“I was really surprised to hear from the folks at the syringe service program that just as many of them were injecting methamphetamine as they were opioids, and many of them were co-using both types of substances,” she said. “That got me thinking that the increase in methamphetamine mortality might be driven by the co-use of meth with illicitly manufactured fentanyl, in particular, which we’ve seen in the opioid overdose crisis is driving a lot of the deaths in the United States.”

National data appears to support that hypothesis, Hoopsick said.

Hoopsick also listed several solutions that could help prevent deaths and reduce other harm: users exchanging used syringes for fresh, clean ones, testing users’ drugs for a fentanyl presence (something she observed at the CUPHD) and also testing drugs to determine their composition and potency. Some communities also offer safe injection sites, ensuring that users are not alone and lessening the potential for overdose.

“A lot of our harm reduction efforts are geared predominantly toward people who are using opioids, but we need to think about how we can also reach those who are using stimulants or who may be co-using opioids and stimulants,” Hoopsick said.