In this June 6, 2017 file photo, a reporter holds up an example of the amount of fentanyl that can be deadly after a news conference about deaths from fentanyl exposure, at DEA Headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Some large law enforcement agencies have recently abandoned the routine chemical field tests out of concern that officers could be exposed to opioids that can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled. Even a minute amount of the most potent drugs, such as fentanyl, can cause violent illness or death. Credit: Jacquelyn Martin | AP

The number of Mainers who fatally overdosed the first three months of 2018 was slightly lower than during the same period last year, although the number of fatalities due to the highly potent opioid fentanyl increased, according to the attorney general’s office.

Eighty-six people died from drug overdoses in the first quarter of 2018, as compared with 89 who died in the first quarter of 2017, according to a report released Friday by the AG’s office. The slightly downward trend in deaths marks the first time the death toll in Maine’s drug epidemic has shown a sign of dipping since a record 418 Mainers died last year.

“Three months of data is not a trend, but it’s encouraging that it’s not spiking,” said Dr. Noah Nesin, medical director for the Bangor-based Penobscot Community Health Care. “It’s hard to know what this means. But it’s at least encouraging, because fentanyl is becoming more prevalent.”

The increased presence in Maine of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be 100 times more potent than heroin, corresponded to new data in Friday’s report. While the number of overall deaths decreased, the proportion tied to fentanyl rose, the report stated.

In the first three months of 2018, 65 percent of fatal drug overdoses were caused by non-pharmaceutical fentanyl or fentanyl analogues, up from 52 percent in 2016 and 59 percent in 2017, according to the report, which was written by Dr. Marcella Sorg of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center.

Friday’s report continues a trend seen in Maine last year, when the fentanyl claimed 247 lives, outpacing heroin for the first time.

“The shift we are seeing from heroin to cheap, deadly fentanyl is deeply troubling,” Attorney General Mills said in a press release Friday. “Some of these fentanyl analogs are so dangerous simply touching the powder or accidentally inhaling its dust can be fatal.

The report also indicated that the proportion of heroin-related deaths continued its downward trend, based on the first-quarter numbers. Between January and March, heroin, or heroin coupled with another drug, killed 14 people, or 16 percent of the all drug deaths — a percentage that’s down from the 21 percent who died from the drug in 2017, according to the report.

Pharmaceutical opioid deaths were also down. They constituted 20 percent of the first quarter deaths in 2018, “compared to 33 percent in all of 2016 and 30 percent in all of 2017,” the report stated.

Fentanyl analogues killed 19 people, including one person who died from carfentanil — a drug that is 5,000 times stronger than heroin.

“We must break the stranglehold that opioid use has on our state,” said Mills, who is also a Democratic gubernatorial hopeful. “The figures released today demonstrate dramatically that we have not yet turned the tide against opioids and there is still much work to be done.”

Fentanyl-related deaths are climbing nationally, too. Last month, the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, have now surpassed prescription pills to become the most common drug involved in overdose deaths in the United States. Researchers analyzed national mortality data between 2010 and 2016.

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Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.