Maine’s 2022 fatal drug overdoses are on course to surpass 2021’s grim record – Maine Beacon


Drug overdose deaths in Maine have increased in the first eight months of 2022 compared to the same period in 2021, according to monthly reports released by the Attorney General’s Office and the Office of Behavioral Health, showing the continued toll the opioid epidemic has taken on the state.

Maine established a registration for overdose deaths last year, with more than 630 deaths, or nearly two a day. However, tracking the first eight months of 2022 shows the state is on track to surpass that number this year.

Maine overdose report for August 2022, the most recent month for which data was released, found the state had experienced 463 fatal overdoses from January through August of this year. There were 394 overdoses during the same period in 2021, putting 2022 significantly ahead of the rate of fatal overdoses in the first eight months of last year.

“I’d like to say it’s surprising, but it’s not surprising at all,” Chasity Tuell of the Maine Access Points harm reduction group said of the rise in overdoses. “We keep saying we need overdose awareness, but we’re all aware of that at this point. We see it every day and we hear it every day.

Some hopes of changing the trajectory of the crisis may be on the horizon. Earlier this year, Maine’s recovery community succeeded in strengthening the state’s existing Good Samaritan law, expanding the legal protections provided at the scene of an overdose. As Tag previously reportedthe updated law ensures that those who make a good faith effort to seek medical assistance from a person who has overdosed and those on the scene rendering assistance are immune from liability with the person who overdoses.

Proponents say the updated law is backed by years of research, including a 2018 study which found that Good Samaritan statuses were associated with a 15% reduction in opioid-related overdose deaths. However, the strengthened law didn’t go into effect until August — too late to see much impact so far in state reports of fatal overdoses for 2022.

Yet while Tuell said she hopes the new law will help, an inherent mistrust of authorities among many drug users means it cannot be the only solution to the overdose crisis. To fix the problem, she said Maine needs to take other steps as well, including creating additional, less restrictive needle service programs to help keep people who use drugs safe. She added that allowing doctors to prescribe drugs in safe amounts to people with substance use disorders – an idea similar to a launched program in Vancouver — would significantly reduce the rate of overdoses.

Overall, Tuell said Maine needs to move away from its past approach to dealing with substance use.

“We are a society built around punishment and prisons and it should be built around public health,” she said.

Lawyers gather in the halls of the Maine State House in 2021 to encourage lawmakers to pass drug decriminalization legislation | Tag

Zoe Brokos, executive director of the Church of Safe Injection, a Maine-based harm reduction group, added that the increase in fatal overdoses is all the more frustrating and tragic because of the concrete steps that could be taken to solve the problem.

Along with reforms suggested by Tuell, Brokos said more needs to be done to ensure a safe supply and share information about the drugs circulating in the community, particularly with fentanyl making up the majority of overdose deaths in the state. Brokos said progress has been made in this area, citing a state-appointed overdose review board. However, she said the Injection Safety Church “strongly believes that information should be shared and communicated to members of the community” in the most proactive way possible.

“We just need to focus on understanding the substances in our community and not wait to get someone’s toxicology report after they die,” she said.

Brokos added that it’s time to consider overdose prevention sites as another strategy to help keep people alive. These sites, which offer people a place to inject drugs previously obtained under supervision and using sterile equipmenthas already lives saved in the places where they have been installed.

Another crucial step, according to Brokos and Tuell, is the decriminalization of personal possession of illicit drugs so that the state response can shift from punishing people to treating substance use disorders. The recovery community put forward such a bill in 2021, which healthcare professionals said would make it possible to better face the crisis. However, the measure lack in the state Senate amid opposition from Republicans, some Democrats and Governor Janet Mills.

Recent public opinion research, however, shows that there is an appetite for reforms such as drug decriminalization. A investigationdeveloped by University of Maine professors Robert Glover and Karyn Sporer and released to the field in the summer of 2021, found a strong majority of Mainers support diverting people with substance use disorders out of the criminal justice system and into community programs that aid recovery.

Additionally, 76% of respondents said they support the fight against the crisis through widespread distribution of the overdose reversal narcan. Whereas out of phase with recovery advocates on some issues, Mills pushed to expand access to narcan.

This contrasts sharply with the views of his predecessor as governor and opponent of the November election, Paul LePage. During a gubernatorial debate on Tuesday, LePage reiterated his opposition to the wide dissemination of the narcan, which checked in thousands of lives in Maine.

In 2016, LePage wrote in a message of veto that “naloxone doesn’t really save lives, it just prolongs them until the next overdose”. Not only this statement fake but this rhetoric was critical to imply that those who use drugs are not worth saving.

Photo: A 2020 vigil at the Maine State House calling on lawmakers to decriminalize drug possession to address the overdose crisis | Tag


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