AUGUSTA, Maine — The terrible toll that drug addiction is taking on Maine was encapsulated on Oct. 16, the day two men — both age 25 — died of overdoses in Portland, adding their names to the growing list of drug deaths in 2015.
These deaths came two months after Maine Attorney General Janet Mills had already warned that overdoses during the first half of 2015 were tracking to surpass the state’s record of 208 deaths, just set in 2014.
Then, this past Thursday, Mills announced “the state is on pace to reach between 230 and 250 overdose deaths this year” based on drug fatalities during the first nine months of 2015.
Heroin and fentanyl are increasingly named as a cause of death in drug overdoses, Tim Feeley, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said in a joint statement released with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Heroin is often diluted, or cut, with fentanyl, the most potent opioid available, which is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin.
Between January and September 2015, deaths attributable to drug overdoses stood at 174. Of those 71, or 41 percent, were caused by heroin and 54, or 31 percent, were caused by fentanyl or acetyl fentanyl, Feeley said. In 74 percent of all the cases, multiple drugs were listed as a cause of death, he said.
The numbers paint a dire picture of Maine’s opioid crisis, officials said. Mills, in her statement, said, the drug problem “seems to have the attention of everyone but the users.”
“In recent days the police have taken major actions to disrupt the supply of heroin and other opiates into our state and to protect our citizenry from those who would sell it,” she said. “We can and must do more.”
“We must also begin the long effort of curbing the demand for these deadly substances by educating people of the dangers and supporting people in recovery from addiction,” she said.
Both Portland police Chief Michael Sauschuck and Bangor police Chief Mark Hathaway say a three-pronged approach — education, enforcement and treatment — is needed to tackle drug addiction in Maine.
“We need a solution,” Hathaway told Bangor’s Community Health Leadership Board earlier this week about the creation of a 10-bed social detox center. “And this is a very good solution.”
Hathaway said most of Bangor’s crime is related to drug abuse and addiction.
Bangor law enforcement and community partners are working to establish a law enforcement-assisted jail diversion program for people with substance abuse problems who also break the law. Portland started working on a similar diversion program in August.
The programs would allow law enforcement officers to divert people arrested for low-level drug-related offenses into community-based services, instead of sending them to jail. Hathaway said the program is designed to get people off drugs and put them on the path to recovery.
Diverted prescription pills are still a problem, Feeley said. A total of 113 of the 174 overdose deaths involved at least one pharmaceutical drug and 111 involved at least one illicit drug, with around 29 percent caused by a combination of prescription and illicit drugs, he said.
Painkilling opioids prescribed by doctors, sometimes in combination with other opioids, led to 70 deaths, Feeley said.
“This office is encouraging all departments to have Naloxone available, though it is more frequently employed by EMTs and hospital ER staff,” Mills wrote in an email, referring to the drug that helps revive overdose victims. “We had figures from last year that showed EMT responses to apparent ODs tripled over the year before.”
Mills also issued a letter to Maine doctors and the Maine Pharmacy Association asking them to be aware of narcotic drug abuse warnings, “and we are preparing some PSAs [public service announcement] on heroin and opioid abuse to go up on TV and hopefully social media in the near future,” Mills said.