The number of opioid-related overdose deaths in Maine likely dropped last year, reversing a devastating six-year trend of steady increases.

Still, the total remains historically high and the number of deaths now connected to cocaine and methamphetamine is rising, the attorney general’s office said on Friday.

The latest report included data from the first three quarters of 2018, as well as projections for the entire year. The year-end numbers have not been finalized.

From January-September, there were 282 fatalities caused by all drugs, a 5 percent decrease from the 297 deaths reported in the same period of 2017. The report projects that there will be 376 drug overdoses for all of 2018.

Additionally, the projected number of opioid deaths in 2018 related to pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical opioids – including heroin and fentanyl – is predicted to decrease by 13 percent to a total of 307 opioid deaths from a peak of 354 in 2017.

“Though we obviously welcome the slight reduction, the fact remains that the opioid epidemic is a public health crisis which is tearing apart Maine families and communities,” Attorney General Aaron Frey said in a prepared statement. “Our office recognizes the urgency of this crisis, and I am committed to working in a collaborative manner with Gov. (Janet) Mills, the Legislature, and all relevant agencies and community leaders to turn this crisis around by finding and implementing real solutions.”

The new report compiled by Dr. Marcella Sorg of the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center comes two days after Mills signed an executive order outlining immediate steps her administration will take to combat an opioid crisis that continues to claim more than one life each day to overdose.

The $1.6 million order includes purchasing 35,000 doses of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone to be distributed across the state; integrating medication-assisted treatment into the criminal justice system, including jails and prisons; and creating a statewide network of 250 recovery coaches, including 10 full-time coaches assigned to hospital emergency rooms, who will guide people as they navigate their struggle with substance use disorder.

In her proposed two-year budget for 2020-21, which was released Friday, Mills included an additional $5.5 million in funding to combat the opioid crisis – $2 million for fiscal year 2020 and $3.5 million for 2021. The funds will be used on existing treatment programs as well as toward increasing the weekly reimbursement rate for methadone and repealing the two-year time limit for Suboxone under MaineCare.

The funding comes from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which is the state’s tobacco settlement account.

Frey said the high number of fatal overdoses in the state continues to be driven by non-pharmaceutical fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, which caused 173 deaths in the first three quarters of last year. Still, the projected total of 231 fentanyl deaths is down about 6 percent from 2017, according to the report, which used data from the state Medical Examiner’s Office.

The number of pharmaceutical opioid deaths is projected to decrease by 29 percent and heroin deaths are anticipated to drop 17 percent from 2017, according to the report, suggesting the crisis may be plateauing.

Drug overdose deaths have been rising steadily in the U.S. for several years, but prior to last year, the increase had been more acute in Maine than most other states.

Between 2013 and 2014, when the crisis first took hold, overdose deaths rose 16 percent – from 179 to 208 – the third-highest increase in any state. The following year, 272 Mainers died from overdoses, again putting the state near the top for increases behind only New Hampshire, North Dakota and Massachusetts.

From 2015 to 2016, Maine saw another major increase, 35 percent, bringing the total to 378 deaths. That ranked Maine sixth among all states for annual percent increase and well above the nationwide increase of 21 percent.

And in 2017, there were a record 418 overdose deaths, an increase of 20 percent over the prior year, seventh among states and double the 10 percent increase nationwide.

While Maine is seeing decreases in heroin and fentanyl deaths, there are projected increases in the number of deaths related to cocaine and methamphetamine, according to the report, which said cocaine is increasingly being found mixed with fentanyl and heroin.

The state estimates the number of deaths from cocaine last year was 95, an increase of 4 percent from 2017 and 58 percent from 2016. Cocaine was mixed with fentanyl in 32 percent of fentanyl deaths and 35 percent of heroin deaths.

The projected number of methamphetamine deaths is 21, which is higher than the two previous years.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian

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