PORTLAND — With fentanyl increasingly to blame, overdose deaths in the state climbed 11 percent in 2017.
Attorney General Janet Mills announced Feb. 22 there were 418 overdose deaths in Maine last year, based on data collected and analyzed by Dr. Marcella Sorg.
“While the increase is not as significant as the nearly 40 percent increase in deaths in 2016 over the previous year, the number of deaths in 2017 was driven by a sharp increase of 27 percent in deaths due to illegal fentanyl and fentanyl analogs,” Mills said in a press release.
Sorg, of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, is under contract with Mills’ office to study the fatalities and report her findings.
“A ‘drug death’ is identified when one or more drugs are mentioned on the death certificate as a cause or significant contributing factor for the death,” Sorg said in her report. Her study determined 365 of the 418 statewide overdose deaths were accidental.
Sorg found deaths involving heroin or morphine declined by 27 percent. The number of statewide overdose deaths increased from 376 in 2016. The second half of 2017 was most lethal, with 233 deaths recorded after June 30.
Cumberland County was hardest hit by the overdose deaths, with 26 percent, or 109. There were 57 deaths in Portland, Sorg said, up from 42 in 2016. Sorg found 51 of 57 deaths could be attributed to opioid use.
While heroin-related deaths declined statewide, Sorg found fentanyl or fentanyl analogs a cause of 257 deaths in 2017, up from 194 in 2016. Fentanyl is an opioid that was once more commonly mixed with heroin. The pharmaceutical and illicit versions are now a presence of their own.
“When people ingest this powerful powder, they often believe it is heroin, and have been told it’s heroin,” Mills said. “But no one should take a chance with these substances. Even as dangerous as heroin is, fentanyl is hundreds of times more likely to kill you.”
Sorg noted 79 percent of deaths were caused by two or more drugs, with the majority involving at least three drugs. The percentage of deaths caused by at least one opioid remained constant at 85 percent. In 2016, 84 percent of the 376 overdose deaths were linked to opioid use.
As opioid use continued to be a leading cause of overdose deaths, Sorg noted the percentage of victims found with naloxone in their blood also increased from 25 percent to 31 percent.
Naloxone, known by its Narcan tradename, reverses the effects of an opioid overdose if administered in time.
The average age of overdose victims was 41, and ranged from 18 to 94. Of those who accidentally overdosed, the average age was 40, with a range from 18 to 75, with 76 percent of accidental victims being men. Of the fentanyl overdoses, 80 percent of the victims were men.
Illicit drugs were responsible for 305 of the 418 overdose deaths, Sorg said. This included cocaine and methamphetamines as well as opioids. Of the overdoses caused by pharmaceutical drugs, whether properly prescribed or not, 53 were attributed to Oxycodone, followed by 31 attributed to methadone. In 2016, those deaths were 46 and 41, respectively.
Sorg also noted cocaine was a cause in 91 deaths, whether alone or with other drugs. That is an increase of 31 from 2016. In 2015, 35 deaths were attributed to cocaine use.
Locally, the city continues to fight opioid use with training sessions on how to use Narcan and resuscitate victims. City councilors are also ready to discuss whether a safe injection site could better prevent overdoses and help people find ways to recover from opioid addictions.
The state is now moving forward on rules allowing pharmacists to prescribe naloxone, although they would be restricted from prescribing it to anyone under the age of 18.
Maine Pharmacy Board President Joe Bruno said this month he hopes the rules can be in place by May 1.
On Feb. 23, Gov. Paul LePage said “more education, stronger enforcement, and more available treatment, including faith-based programs,” is needed.
He added the state is stepping forward with treatment options.
“We are adding hundreds of treatment beds in Windham with a significant portion dedicated to substance-abuse intervention,” he said in a press release.