Ninth Dispatch Blog

Fast growth you’d rather not have: Opioid abuse in the Ninth District

Ronald A. Wirtz | Director, Regional Outreach | @RonWirtz

Published September 8, 2017

Opioid deaths are making a lot of headlines, both at the state and national level. Most Ninth District states have seen opioid deaths and death rates rise considerably from 2005 to 2015 (see chart). The “good” news is that rates in most district states are well below the national opioid death rate (10.3 percent per 100,000 population). The rate of growth has been statistically muted in Montana and South Dakota over this period, but both witnessed big increases through 2013, followed by a sizable drop by 2015. There is also some evidence of a big increase in the last 18 months, largely from the growth of fentanyl and other synthetic opioid use. A preliminary count of drug overdose deaths for 2016 in North Dakota hit 80, which was almost one-third higher than 2015. Minnesota’s preliminary 2016 count also rose 13 percent. (However, this was a count of all drug overdoses; opioid deaths were not split out.)

The increase in opioid use exacerbates existing drug problems, particularly concerning methamphetamine, which is showing no signs of slowing. In private meetings and conversations with Regional Outreach staff, employers regularly note the compounding effect that drug abuse has on an already-tight labor market, with high failure rates for drug testing among job applicants, particularly for lower-paying positions. The owner of a staffing agency in Minnesota noted that the company does a 10-panel drug screen for many clients. But at a recent meeting with industry peers, “my counterparts mentioned how the drug screen is a significant barrier to entry for some of their customers. I probed for more, and they said they have had clients change their entire hiring process to eliminate the drug screen.”

A South Dakota human resources consultant acknowledged a similar pattern. “I have heard a couple of employers say they have discontinued pre-employment drug tests, but they still do random testing. My sense is they want to give people a chance to succeed at the job – maybe it’s more of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell philosophy.’ I would also say I’ve had more clients who have mentioned employees getting assistance for drug addictions. Most employers seem willing to work with an individual who comes forward, and working with them on getting treatment.”