LUBEC, Maine — Prescription drug abuse and addiction is epidemic, not only in Washington County, but throughout Maine and the country, Maine Attorney General William Schneider said Monday.
“Twenty years ago, I was a drug prosecutor for five or six years, and back then 95 percent of the cases I dealt with involved heroin, crack and cocaine,” Schneider said while addressing a seminar in Lubec attended by 50 health care providers and law enforcement professionals. “These days I’m dealing with 80 percent prescription drug abuse and 20 percent with those other drugs. The problem has mushroomed in the last 20 years.”
In 2009, he said, there were 169 deaths in Maine attributed to overdose, with 97 percent involving prescription drugs, usually methadone, oxycodone or some blend of both.
“More people in Maine die from drug overdoses than traffic fatalities. It’s a terrible, terrible problem. There are about 500 drug-affected babies born in Maine each year, and I usually can’t even mention that statistic without getting choked up,” Schneider said.
In 2011, there were 23 newborns diagnosed in Machias as facing opiate withdrawal and other effects of their mothers’ prescription drug abuse. By comparison, there were 139 such newborns diagnosed in Bangor.
Schneider is the engine driving a new push to establish a Maine Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force. Last week, Gov. Paul LePage signed an executive order creating a 17-member task force that will be populated by law enforcement, medical, dental, pharmaceutical and education professionals. Members of the task force were announced Monday.
The task force is an outgrowth of a drug abuse summit convened by Schneider last October. It’s being tasked to implement four strategies developed at the summit. They include developing a long-term solution to voluntary disposal of controlled substances and implementing a statewide “diversion alert program” through which those licensed to write controlled substance prescriptions are provided drug crime information, including photos of those who have been arrested or convicted on drug-related charges.
The task force also will look at ways to enhance public and professional education about the problem and will review how best to maintain the Maine Prescription Monitoring Program, a database that tracks controlled substance prescriptions.
Schneider said the evolution of the problem is linked to “the diffuse nature of the supply.”
“Prescription drugs are available everywhere,” he said. “Kids steal them from their parents or from hospice patients. People doctor shop and bring them across the border [from Canada].
Washington County’s proximity to Canada exacerbates illicit prescription drug trafficking, Schneider said. “It makes Maine the first stop for any drugs that are smuggled in from Canada.”
The chemical formulation of oxycodone prescribed in Canada is different from the oxycodone prescribed in the U.S., where substances are added to make it difficult to dissolve the drug for injection. That pharmaceutical reality has created a significant black market demand for 80 milligram “oxy” doses from Canada, with a single dose now selling on the streets of Bangor for $145.
Also speaking at the event was Chris Gardner of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. He said the state is drowning in prescription drugs being diverted from legal purposes for recreational use. In 2010, there were 10,000 doses seized by law enforcement. Last year that number climbed to 44,000 doses.
“I’m seeing that the people I deal with have large, large quantities,” Gardner said.
Maine State Senate President Kevin Raye, who lives in Perry and represents Washington County, told the seminar that prescription drug abuse and addiction are “extracting a terrible toll on our communities.”
“It’s not a new problem, but it requires a significant commitment to doing something,” Raye said. “While well-intentioned, previous efforts to fight prescription drug abuse have not been successful. … It’s clear we must take action and stop tolerating a culture that has addicted the young and the old.
“We are all in this together in facing this tragic situation and confronting this scourge of prescription drug abuse and the harm it is doing to our families and communities,” he said. “We need to limit pain medications to those who need it and keep them out of the hands of those who don’t.”