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New report shows opioid deaths on the rise in Maine

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Between 2019 and 2020, drug deaths in Maine rose by 33% according to a report funded by the Maine Office of the Attorney General. In 2020, 504 people died as a result of drugs, up from 380 in 2019.

According to the report, 91% of drug deaths in 2020 were the result of accidental overdoses. There was an increase in deaths due to the use of nonpharmaceutical drugs, particularly fentanyl, used in combination with other drugs, such as methamphetamines and cocaine. The report found 81% of deaths in 2020 involved two or more drugs and the average cause of death involved three drugs. 

Drug deaths increased in almost all counties in Maine, except Cumberland, Lincoln, and Somerset, which experienced decreases in the number of drug-related deaths. 

The report shows a link in time between the rise in drug-related deaths and the COVID-19 pandemic. But it does not directly link the pandemic to the increase in deaths. Drug-related deaths were trending upward before the pandemic in January 2019, dipped in quarter 2 of 2020, and then began to rise again. The authors of the report are conducting research to determine whether the pandemic created conditions, such as increasing isolation and limiting access to medicine, which affected the number of drug-related deaths.

Maine’s rise in drug overdose deaths reflects a trend experienced across the nation. According to provisional data reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there was a 29.4% increase in drug overdose deaths across the nation between November 2019 and November 2020. Only South Dakota experienced a decrease in the number of deaths. 

Gov. Mills, along with Director of Opioid Response Gordon Smith and Commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services Jeanne Lambrew, responded to the report from the Office of the Attorney General and touted steps the administration has taken to combat drug overdoses.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult in many ways, and this is yet another example of how it has hurt our state and our people.” said Mills.

On June 22, a day before the report was released, Mills signed L.D. 1718, which created the Accidental Drug Overdose Death Review Panel. The panel is housed within the Office of the Attorney General and will review a subset of deaths caused by accidental drug overdoses and make recommendations about how to prevent overdose deaths to state, county, and local agencies. For the purposes of the law, accidental overdoses are presumed to be self-administered and do not apply to any overdose that occurs in a licensed healthcare facility.

The panel will include several ex officio members, including the Chief Medical Examiner, the Commissioner of Public Safety, the director of the Office of Behavioral Health in the Department of Human Services, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, and the director of opioid response within the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future, who will chair the panel. 

The governor will also appoint several members to the panel, including one or more physicians who treat substance use disorder, an expert in harm reduction strategies, a representative of families affected by drug overdose deaths and a person recovering from substance abuse disorder. The attorney general must appoint a prosecutor, a police chief, a sheriff, and an academic research professor with experience in reviewing drug overdose deaths. The Commissioner of Public Safety will appoint an emergency medical services representative. Authorities are required to take the racial and ethnic diversity of the state into consideration when making their appointments.

The panel also has the power to review nonfatal overdose cases and can require any person with information or records relevant to a case it is reviewing to provide those information or records. The panel’s records are confidential and not subject to subpoena, discovery or introduction into evidence in a civil or criminal action.

As an emergency bill, the law went into effect immediately upon receiving Mills’ signature. 

Gordon Smith, the Director of Opioid Response, touted the state’s Overdose Prevention Through Intensive Outreach, Naloxone and Safety (OPTIONS) Initiative as a step the Mills administration has taken against drug overdoses. 

Announced by the Mills administration in October 2020, the OPTIONS Initiative sends mobile response teams into Maine counties to interact with communities with high rates of drug overdoses, such as homeless populations, those who have left treatment programs and individuals who were recently incarcerated. The program aims to promote harm reduction strategies by connecting at-risk individuals with recovery services and distributing naloxone, which is used to treat overdoses. 

The program received $2.5 million in federal funds, including $500,000 in Coronavirus Relief Funds.

About Katherine Revello

Katherine Revello is a reporter for The Maine Wire. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Maine. Her writing has appeared in Reason, The Washington Examiner, and various other publications. Got news tips? Contact Katherine at krevello@mainepolicy.org.

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