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Drug Deaths In Maine Continue To Increase

Maine continues to see a record number of overdose deaths. The latest figures show 189 people have died of overdoses in the first six months of his year. That’s up from 126 during the same time last year. As Mal Leary reports state officials are worried the state is on track to see close to 400 by the end of December.

An analysis of the drug overdose death records by forensic anthropologist Dr. Marcella Sorg at University of Maine shows most of them are the result of combining illicit and pharmaceutical drugs, in particular, use of the drug fentanyl. Sorg says of the 189 overdose deaths in the first six months of the year, 84 were attributed, at least in part, to fentanyl. She says the toxicity of fentanyl is part of the reason deaths are increasing.

“Sometimes it isn’t that, that a larger number of people are using drugs but they are using drugs that are a lot more lethal and so they are more apt to die from it,” Sorg says.

And in 85 of the deaths Sorg analyzed, at least one pharmaceutical opioid like oxycodone or methadone was found to be present. Combining drugs is not unusual. But what concerns Sorg is the jump in the numbers. She says Maine could see close to 400 drug deaths this year.

“The first half of the year this year may not be a good indicator of how high it could go for the year as a whole,” Sorg says. “It may increase by quite a bit in the second half, or it might not.”

Attorney General Janet Mills shares that fear. She says the state has been trying to respond to the drug crisis with legislation limiting opioid prescriptions and increasing drug agents and prosecutors. But Mills says more needs to be done to hold drug dealers accountable.

“When you come in this state or come through this state and you are from this state and you provide heroin and fentanyl or fentanyl analogues to somebody and they die from taking those drugs, then you are responsible for the death of that person,” Mills says.

But being tougher on drug dealers is only part of the solution, Mills says. She says the state needs to do more to educate the public about the risks of drugs and to expand drug treatment. Dr. Meredith Norris, an addiction doctor with Grace Street Services in Lewiston, says she’s disappointed but not surprised at the increasing death toll.

“What we are seeing is what I predicted a few years ago started to happen that when there is less availability of opioids without an increase in treatment options people don’t get sober they just switch to what is available on the streets,” says Norris.

Dr. Norris served on the Maine Opioid Collaborative that was co-chaired by Mills, the U-S Attorney for Maine, Thomas Delahanty and Public Safety Commissioner John Morris. Norris says too much of the state’s focus has been on curtailing the drug supply instead of on expanding quality drug treatment.

“I feel like I have been watching a slow moving train wreck for a couple of years now and I feel like all the wrong solutions are being promoted,” says Norris.

For example, Norris says the Legislature has refused to adequately increase the Medicaid reimbursement rate for Methadone treatment providers and the LePage administration has proposed rules to make it more challenging to provide the service. Norris says until state leaders take a more balanced approach to address the drug crisis, the number of deaths from drug overdoses will continue to grow.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.