AUGUSTA – There is good news about the number of drug overdose deaths in Maine, but experts say the epidemic is far from over.
The overdose decrease does not mean there are fewer drug users in the state, according to a recent report by the Maine Attorney General’s Office.
“In 2018 there were 354 overdose deaths. In 2017, there had been 417,” said Dr. Noah Nesin, Vice President of Medical Affairs for Penobscot Community Health Care.
“Given that we’d had an increase for at least eight years in a row, any decrease would be good,” said Gordon Smith, Director of Opioid Response.
“The bad news is that … the number of people who die of accidental overdoses is not really a good proxy for how many people are using and suffering from substance use disorders,” Smith added. “It’s more a reflection simply of how lethal were the particular drugs coming into Maine last year.”
Around 80 percent of the overdose deaths involved opiates, often combined with other drugs and alcohol. Around 70 percent or 217 deaths of those involved Fentanyl. Opioid deaths overall have decreased by 20 percent.
“Alarmingly, at the same time, we’re seeing increases in overdose deaths from other kinds of drugs,” Nesin said.
Overdose deaths related to cocaine and methamphetamines are on the rise, states the report, written by Dr. Marcella Sorg, a research professor at the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine.
Sorg has been tracking drug overdose deaths in Maine since 2002.
“This is still a huge problem in Maine and until we really start addressing the root causes of addition…the problem won’t get much better,” Smith said.
“Part of it is genetic and part of it is the environment,” Nesin said of drug use disorder. “The more emotional trauma a person has to deal with in their life, whether it’s poverty, neglect or abuse or having somebody with an alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder in their household, those kind of things contribute to the risk for developing a substance use disorder yourself.”
They say educating youngsters about the dangers, reducing stigma and enhancing recovery programs will help fight the epidemic.
“I think they’ll continue to come down, but it’s really because of harm reduction,” Smith said. “It really is because of needle exchanges, Narcan, naloxone, and the recognition that we need to keep people alive and there is more treatment available.”
Even though the drug overdose numbers have decreased in the last year, the average is still nearly one a day.