AUGUSTA, Maine — More people in Maine have died by overdosing on drugs in the first six months of this year than in all of 2013 and overdose deaths are up 50 percent over the same time last year, a clear indication of the state’s growing drug problem, according to information released Monday by the state attorney general’s office.
In the first six months of 2016, 189 people in Maine died by drug overdose, according to a preliminary analysis compiled by Dr. Marcella Sorg, a University of Maine medical and forensic anthropologist who analyzes overdose deaths for the state’s attorney general.
“This represents a 50 percent increase over the same six-month period last year,” Tim Feeley, spokesman for the attorney general, said Monday, referring to the 126 people who died from a drug overdose in the first six months of 2015. Maine saw a record 272 overdose deaths in 2015.
A total of 176 people in Maine died by overdose in 2013. There were 208 overdose deaths in 2014, which was also a record. This year’s overdose deaths are on track to reach at least 378, based on the preliminary data.
The increase in the number of deaths this year is driven by fentanyl, an often illicitly manufactured opioid pain medication that is many times more lethal than morphine, Feeley said, adding that fentanyl products often are mixed with or presented to the user as heroin.
“Illicit fentanyl and its chemical analogs caused 44 [percent] of the January-June deaths,” he said.
Of the 189 fatal overdoses so far this year, most involved two or more drugs and/or alcohol, with 121 involving at least one illicit drug alone or in combination and 126 involving a diverted prescription drug alone or in combination. Eighty-five deaths were attributable to at least one pharmaceutical opioid, such as methadone and oxycodone, and 84 included illicitly manufactured fentanyl or one of the fentanyl analogs, Sorg reported.
A total of 48 people died from using heroin or morphine, 25 from cocaine, and 52 from taking one or more benzodiazepines, which are tranquilizers.
Pharmaceutical painkillers, often trafficked from out of state, have continued to play a large role in fatal overdoses. The drugs were involved in about 45 percent of the deaths, Feeley said, adding that prescribed and illicit opioid drugs often are found together when users overdose. Alcohol was listed as a co-intoxicant in combination with other drugs in 41, or 22 percent, of the deaths so far this year.
The 2015 overdose numbers marked a 31 percent increase over the previous year. Fifty-seven were primarily attributable to heroin and 43 primarily attributable to fentanyl.
“Fentanyl, heroin, and painkillers are exacting a tremendous toll on our state,” Attorney General Janet Mills stated in the news release. “These figures are very distressing. People should know there is no safe amount to sniff or shoot. There is no safe party pill, and combinations can be lethal.”
Mills added that death is just one outcome of using illegal drugs.
“If it doesn’t kill you it will lead to a lifetime of addiction, illness and hopelessness,” she said. “If a person is tempted to try these drugs, even if they are not thinking of their own well-being, they should be thinking of the well-being of their family, friends and loved ones.”
Mills also said those who try drugs should know there are ways to escape the grip of addiction.
“There is hope for persons with substance abuse disorders, if they take the right steps and ask for help,” the attorney general said.
In addition to the overdose deaths in Maine, the state also saw 548 opioid poisonings during 2015, according to Colin Smith of the Northern New England Poison Center. Of those, abuse is listed as the cause in 140 cases, suicide attempts account for 152 and medication errors resulted in 79, he said.
Another effect of drug use in Maine is the growing number of babies born by mothers who continue to use while carrying.
“The heartbreaking truth is that this epidemic has a far-reaching impact in Maine; we see it each year as more than 1,000 babies are born drug-affected,” Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in August.
In response to the growing number of drug-related deaths in Maine, Mills has sponsored a series of public education TV and radio ads and launched a website, doseofrealitymaine.org, to share information about the safe handling and disposal of prescription painkillers. The attorney general alsohas distributed 866 doses of naloxone, an opioid antidote, to 26 law enforcement agencies across Maine.
Those agencies have reported administering naloxone 14 times at overdose scenes, Feeley said.
People should not use illegal drugs in the first place, and they should avoid mixing their prescriptions with illicit drugs or other medications or alcohol, Mills said as a warning.
“I hope that more people get the message before another grim record is set in this state,” Mills said.