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Maine saw 15 percent fewer drug overdose deaths in 2018, marking the first year since 2011 that the total number of those deaths dropped in Maine.
However, the number of fatal overdoses still averaged out to almost once-a-day in 2018, and state officials were quick to point out that more must be done to overcome the crisis.
According to a report from the Maine attorney general’s office released Thursday, 354 Mainers died as a result of a drug overdose last year, down from 417 the year before.
Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat who previously served as the state’s attorney general, called the decline “welcome news” but said “the opioid epidemic still presents a serious public health threat to our state.”
The author of the report, Marcella H. Sorg, of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, said that the decline may be related to several “broad influences,” including economic and policy changes, law enforcement efforts, and the “composition and combination” of drugs that are being sold.
However, she said that the drop doesn’t necessarily indicate fewer Mainers are suffering from opioid use disorder. She also said that arrest statistics from the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency do not suggest that fewer opioids are available.
The majority of drug overdoses — 80 percent — continue to be fueled by opioids, often in combination with other drugs or alcohol, according to the report.
The decline in fatal overdoses may indicate a drop in the lethality of drugs that Mainers are using or a change in the way they’re using them, Sorg said.
She also said that patterns of drug use may be changing, as there has been a hike in the number of deaths in Maine involving cocaine in recent years and “a small, but dramatic increase” in the number of deaths caused by methamphetamine, from 16 in 2017 to 26 last year.
Dr. Noah Nesin, vice president of medical affairs at Penobscot Community Health Care, echoed some of the explanations that Sorg provided, but he also said that he could only speculate why there was a drop in fatal overdoses.
He said people who use opioids may be increasingly cautious about the lethal risk of fentanyl — a synthetic drug that’s far more powerful than heroin — either using it around friends who can make sure they are safe or taking advantage of testing strips that can detect fentanyl.
Fentanyl and its analogs caused 217 overdose deaths last year, which was a 12 percent reduction from 2017, according to Sorg’s report.
Nesin also said that the overdose-reversing drug naloxone has become more widely available, in part due to the efforts of groups like Health Equity Alliance.
Although the state’s medical providers made progress last year in their efforts to offer medication-assisted treatment to people with opioid use disorder, Nesin said he did not think that work would yet make a big dent in the total number of fatal overdoses.
In its first few months, the Mills administration has been making a focused effort to fight the opioid epidemic, appointing a czar to oversee the effort, expanding Medicaid to more than 3,200 people and trying to expand access to medication-assisted treatment.
On Thursday, both Mills and her opioid czar, Gordon Smith, welcomed the drop in overdose deaths but reiterated that the crisis is far from over.
“We will continue to harness the collective power of state government and community partners to strengthen prevention and recovery efforts and ensure that we leave no stone unturned as we combat this scourge,” Smith said.