Substance Use

  • 2023 Assessment of Service Needs of People Who Use Drugs: The final report with findings and recommendations of the service needs and experiences of people who use drugs in Maricopa County is now available. Read more below or view report.
  • 2023 Substance Use Provider Needs Assessment Report: The final report with findings from the provider needs assessment is now available. Read more below or view the report.

Understanding Substance Use

Substance use is the use of substances, including drugs (prescription or illegal) or alcohol, that can change how a person’s body and mind work. Substances such as marijuana and tobacco also are considered drugs. Continued use of the substance may lead to changes in the brain’s structure and function. This can result in intense cravings, withdrawal symptoms, learning and memory problems, and personality changes.

Substance use disorders occur when someone continues to use drugs or alcohol even when it causes problems, such as trouble with work or school, family, or their health. Many factors can influence a person’s chance of developing a substance use disorder.

Substance Use Provider Needs Assessment

In July 2023, Maricopa County completed its first comprehensive provider needs assessment to identify current gaps and barriers in the substance use response continuum of care. Data collection, led by contractor LeCroy & Milligan Associates, centered around provider organizations’ experiences with people who use drugs, care coordination, and regulations affecting substance use interventions. Approximately 500 community-based and governmental staff working in the response continuum representing more than 300 organizations in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors participated.

The County will use report findings and recommendations to inform the development of a substance use prevention and response strategic plan. Planning efforts also will include forecasting of short- and long-term investments needed to reach desired outcomes.

View the 2023 Substance Use Provider Needs Assessment report (PDF)

10 Key Findings from the Report

  • High and varied potency of illicit drugs necessitate a rapid, coordinated, and multipronged response.
  • Timely service access and coordination of care is hindered by inadequate resource and referral information, fragmented funding, and limited partnerships for crisis and care transitions.
  • Greater support for housing, transportation, justice-system transitions, and populations with health disparities is needed for positive care outcomes. 
  • Common metrics for substance-related harms, service utilization, and outcomes would support organizational partnerships and activities, and facilitate public health monitoring of the response. 
  • Stigma associated with people who use drugs hinders organizations providing OUD/SUD interventions, as well as individuals' access to care. 
  • Primary prevention and early intervention to reduce harms to youth are limited by funding restrictions and state/local education policy. 
  • Providing safer substance use services only became legal in Arizona within the past 3 years, and organizations providing them need infrastructure support and development to meet harm reduction demands. 
  • Health insurance authorization and coverage restrictions cause delays and limitations for treatment and recovery services. 
  • Social support is essential for maintaining recovery from opioid and other substance use. 
  • The interplay between harm reduction, abstinence from substances, treatment, relapse, and recovery is important for many people’s substance use journeys, and coordination for simultaneous services from different interventions is needed.

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Assessment of Service Needs of People Who Use Drugs 

This report summarizes findings and recommendations following an assessment of the service needs and experiences of people who use drugs (PWUD) in Maricopa County, with an emphasis on the unique challenges of people experiencing homelessness or unstable housing.  

View the 2023 Assessment of Service Needs of People Who Use Drugs (PDF)

Community organizations who provide direct services to people who use drugs throughout all five regions of Maricopa County (Northeast, Northwest, Central, Southeast, and Southwest) served as host field sites for participant recruitment and data collection. The report summarizes data collected through 525 surveys and 40 interviews with PWUD over a 3-month period. 

Report recommendations fall within six major categories: 

  • Housing; 
  • Energy insecurity; 
  • Drug use and harm reduction; 
  • Substance use treatment; 
  • Health services and basic needs; and  
  • Reproductive health

Findings from this assessment help amplify the voices and experiences of PWUD and complement data collection captured through the County’s recently published Substance Use Provider Needs Assessment

Treatment and Recovery

Learning to recognize the signs and symptoms can be the first step toward seeking help and receiving treatment. Unfortunately, many people who could benefit from treatment don’t receive help. Some may avoid or delay seeking treatment due to concerns about being treated differently, fears of losing their jobs and livelihood, or feelings of guilt and shame. Find resources here.

Removing the stigma around addiction is one of the first steps to addressing this growing problem.  People with addiction should not be blamed for suffering from the disease. Research shows the language we use contributes to stigma and discrimination against people with substance use disorders, including by healthcare professionals. For example, stigmatizing words such as “addict” reduce a person to only their drug use. Using person-first language, i.e., a person with substance use disorder, shows that a person “has” a problem, rather than “is” the problem.

For Providers

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Fentanyl and Mixed Drug Use Trends

Since 2012, overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids, particularly those involving illicitly manufactured fentanyl, have dramatically—and steadily—increased, nationwide.

Additionally, most overdose deaths involve more than one drug. This mixing of substances, either intentionally or unintentionally, is referred to as polydrug or polysubstance use

In Maricopa County:

  • Drug overdose deaths involving heroin or natural and semi-synthetic opioids (which includes prescription opioids such as oxycodone) have been slowly declining since about 2017.
  • From 2012-2021, the overdose death rate for synthetic opioids (e.g., fentanyl) increased by over 6,000%.
  • In both 2020 and 2021, about 91% of drug overdose deaths among those ages 15-24 involved synthetic opioids. 
  • Stimulant involvement in drug overdose deaths involving opioids has steadily increased since 2019. In 2021, 51.9% of overdose deaths involved methamphetamines.

For more overdose data, see our community data page.

Learn more about countywide efforts and resources to combat the tragic outcomes of fentanyl in our community.

Prevalence and Dangers of Fentanyl

According to CDC, most cases of fentanyl-related overdose are linked to illicitly manufactured fentanyl, which is distributed through illegal drug markets for its heroin-like effect. Illicitly made fentanyl is increasingly found in counterfeit prescription medications, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and other illicit drugs. Teens are often the target of drug trafficking organizations who use social media to market and distribute counterfeit pills (view the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office blog post: The Connection Between Snapchat and Fentanyl).

fentanyl powder next to a penny
Photo illustration of 2 milligrams of fentanyl, a lethal dose in most people. Credit: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. It is often added to other drugs because of its extreme potency, which makes drugs cheaper, more powerful, more addictive, and more dangerous.

The high potency of fentanyl greatly increases risk of overdose, especially if a person who uses drugs is unaware that a powder or pill contains it. They can underestimate the dose of opioids they are taking, resulting in overdose. Two milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal depending on a person’s body size, tolerance and past usage.

Harm Reduction Strategies

It is nearly impossible to determine if drugs have been laced with fentanyl because it cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted. Because it is difficult to identify, harm reduction strategies are important for reducing overdoses.

Harm reduction strategies like rapid fentanyl test strips can help individuals to stay safe while using illicit substances to prevent unintentional fentanyl exposure and accidental opioid overdose.

Naloxone is a life-saving medication that can be administered intramuscularly by injection or by nasal spray. It can reverse an overdose from opioids, including heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioid medications. Learn more about where to get free naloxone in Maricopa County and how to use it.

Fact Sheet: What Parents, Caregivers, and School Staff Should Know About Fentanyl

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OD2A Initiatives

Launched in 2019, Overdose Data to Action (OD2A) is a nationwide Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funded program aimed at enhancing overdose surveillance in order to develop data informed overdose prevention activities. OD2A also encourages evidence-based prevention education and training be implemented in communities of high need and those who are at increased risk for overdose and substance use disorder. 

As part of this program, the Maricopa County Department of Health is collaborating with state and local entities on a number of initiatives, including:

  • Improving timeliness of tracking and reporting of nonfatal and fatal drug overdoses, including toxicology to better track polysubstance-involved deaths
  • Developing resources to increase awareness of and create linkages to care among Maricopa County faith-based organizations to support their efforts to address substance use disorders in their communities.
  • Enhancing linkage to care for justice-involved individuals with opioid use disorder and risk for opioid overdose, including recovery support through peer navigators.
  • Implementing a collaborative approach of family support and substance use disorder professionals to improve outcomes for pregnant individuals with a substance use disorder, their newborns, and families. 
  • Improving access to educational materials, training, and/or resources for Maricopa County stakeholders related to fentanyl test strips and naloxone kits.
  • Providing training and other systems support to clinicians and providers for clinical support of patients with chronic pain including the use of non-opioid pain treatment modalities, screening for OUD, prescribing guidelines, and motivational interviewing that supports trauma-informed care. View AACHC video series on stigma, an OD2A funded project.

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The Importance of Harm Reduction

Harm reduction programs are designed to keep people who use opioids and other substances safe. Research has identified a variety of strategies (described below) shown to be effective in reducing the harm produced by opioid misuse, including overdose.


Naloxone, or Narcan, is a medication used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose then allows the individual to breathe normally once administered. Naloxone can be injected in the muscle and/or sprayed into the nose, depending on the type used. Naloxone has no potential for abuse.

For Providers

The Arizona Department of Health Services has naloxone available at no cost for law enforcement agencies, hospital and medical center emergency departments, community-based organizations such as substance use prevention coalitions, harm reduction organizations, family and homeless shelters. Order Naloxone for your organization here.

For the Public

The medical director of Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) issued a standing order on November 11, 2017, that allows any Arizona-licensed pharmacist to dispense naloxone to any individual without a prescription. If you need naloxone for yourself, a family member, or friend, you may ask for naloxone at your local pharmacy. Your health care provider may also prescribe naloxone if you are taking certain pain medications. Most insurance plans cover naloxone, and many community-based organizations provide the drug for free.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

An opioid use disorder may require medication as the first course of treatment. Medication-Assisted Treatment, or MAT, is medically supervised use of prescription medication (methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone) combined with counseling and behavioral therapies to treat dependency on opioids.

MAT tapers patients off opioid dependency. Treatment is designed based on the individual’s needs through careful collaboration with trained medical professionals.

MAT helps ease the symptoms of withdrawal, normalizes body functions, and blocks the addictive effects of opioids. 

For Providers

For the Public

Fentanyl Test Strips

Illicit fentanyl is responsible for an increasing number of drug overdoses. Fentanyl test strips can identify the presence of fentanyl but not how much fentanyl a substance contains or its potency. They can be used to test injectable drugs, powders, and pills.

Being aware if fentanyl is present allows people to make informed choices regarding their drug use and help to prevent accidental overdose.

Syringe Access and Exchange Programs

Syringe access and exchange programs have been shown to be effective in reducing risky behaviors associated with injection drug use (such as sharing syringes and reusing syringes). When people who inject drugs lack access to safe supplies, they can be exposed to unnecessary risk of contracting infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis C.

Syringe services programs (SSPs) can provide a range of services, including access to and disposal of sterile syringes and injection equipment, vaccination, testing, and linkage to medical care, mental health services, and substance use treatment.

Additional Resources

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