We found out Wednesday that Purdue Pharma, the company behind the painkiller OxyContin, will pay for its key role in jumpstarting the nationwide opioid epidemic.

At the same time, we found out why the $8.3 billion settlement will always be too little, too late.

Fatal drug overdoses surged in Maine through the first half of 2020, increasing 27% over the final six months of 2019, when they were already rising following a fleeting dip in 2018. Data are still coming in from the rest of the country, but all indications are that fatal overdoses are rising nearly everywhere else too.

When all is said and done, 2020 will likely be the country’s deadliest ever year in its long battle with addiction.

Some part of the increase this year can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. The increased isolation has allowed addiction to flourish, taking a toll on mental health while separating people from their support and treatment systems. It’s just one way that the country’s failure to limit the length and severity of the virus’ reign here has caused death and misery.

However, the rise in overdose deaths started long before COVID-19. After trending better in 2018, fatal overdoses reached an all-time high in 2019. They were up about 16% in the first three months of 2020, too.

Why? It’s been years since opioids first became a problem, and still the response does not meet the challenge.

The most effective kinds of treatment are still only available to a small fraction of those with opioid use disorder. Still, too many people go to jail or prison as a result of their addiction, only making matters worse and more costly — for the individual and society as a whole.

And still there is widespread opposition to harm reduction. The lack of needle exchanges has contributed to a rise in disease and held back initiatives that could effectively reach out to people who need help. People recoil at the idea of safe-injection sites, so people end up taking drugs on the street, or in cars or public bathrooms, increasing the odds of a fatal overdose or an unsafe interaction.

Meanwhile, the drug problem is changing — and in many ways getting worse.

OxyContin, released in 1996, was hailed by its manufacturer as a game-changer — a powerful painkiller that was nonetheless nonaddictive. Purdue Pharma used false marketing and kickbacks to doctors to spread that fantasy, and prescriptions took off. So did opioid addiction.

Over the years, the billions of doses of OxyContin and other opioid painkillers put out into the world allowed addiction to sink its teeth into untold number of Americans. When the danger was realized, prescriptions were cut back, allowing cheap heroin to fill the void.

Now, powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have supplanted heroin, making the drug problem much more deadly. Stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine, too, are being used in combination with opioids, leading to more overdoses.

Maine has taken many of the right steps in recent years, putting more money toward treatment and harm reduction. On Wednesday, Gov. Janet Mills announced that she is putting mobile overdose response units in every county to promote prevention and help connect people to treatment.

The state also says it wants to concentrate on those who have experienced a nonfatal overdose in the recent past — a major risk factor for a future fatal overdose. That’s smart.

But the settlement with Purdue Pharma, nearly 25 years after their product began capturing and killing Americans, shows that we are still struggling to catch up with the drug epidemic.


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