OxyContin pills on a counting tray at Miller Drug in Bangor are seen in this 2016 file photo. Credit: Gabor Degre

Sales of prescription opioids in Maine fell nearly 25 percent from 2016 to 2017, the steepest drop of any U.S. state amid a nationwide decline, according to a new report.

On average, the country saw an 11 percent drop in the volume of pills prescribed, according to research by the Washington-based firm Avalere Health released Tuesday. Every state except Idaho saw its numbers go down, the research found.

In 2016, Maine distributed nearly 40,000 grams of prescription opioids per 100,000 people, researchers found. In 2017, the number sank to slightly over 30,000 grams.

That reduced figure falls at the lower end of rates throughout the county last year, which ranged from over 74,400 grams per 100,000 people in Idaho to just under 21,450 grams in Minnesota.

Maine led the pack because it was one of several states to pass a bill in 2016 aimed at curbing the amount of opioids that doctors can prescribe to patients, the report said. States that passed more aggressive laws saw greater declines. The Avalere research highlighted a bill Maine lawmakers passed in 2016 that took effect in early 2017, which sharply limited patients to a dose equivalent to 100 milligrams of morphine per day, and capped prescriptions at seven days for acute pain and 30 days for chronic pain.

“Limiting the supply of opioids, such as through fill limits, is gaining traction as part of a broader set of strategies being tested by states as they continue to confront the opioid crisis,” said Kelly Brantley, vice president of Avalere.

Maine lawmakers enacted the prescribing regulations during a year when the opioid crisis saw a record 313 fatal overdoses, believing that tightening the availability of drugs would slow the death toll.

But the new rules ran afoul of some Maine patients, who rely on high doses of opioids to soothe chronic pain.

An estimated 13,000 Maine patients had to be weaned to lower doses that complied with the new law. Experts say that most made the transition successfully, supplementing medication with other pain-management strategies. However, a small number have struggled to cope with debilitating pain, and said they have contemplated buying street drugs to find relief.

After the law was passed, the number of fatal overdoses linked to painkillers continued its downward trend, but drug-induced deaths still climbed.

The Tuesday Avalere report comes two weeks after the Maine attorney general’s office released a report stating that fatal overdoses in Maine during the first quarter of 2018 barely halted their pace, killing an average of one person a day. The June 1 report showed that fentanyl, a synthetic opioid often substituted for heroin, killed the majority of the 86 people who died between January and April of this year.

Overdose deaths from pharmaceutical opioids continued to fall, however. They made up only 20 percent of first-quarter fatalities, down from 30 percent in 2017.

Avalere researchers analyzed data from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, which tracks the distribution of controlled substances from manufacturers to their retail point of sale or dispensing level.

The research aligns with findings released earlier this spring. In April, the American Medical Association reported that filled prescriptions for the opioid painkillers Vicodin and OxyContin in Maine fell by 13 percent between 2016 and 2017. That was a faster drop than the national rate, which declined by 9 percent, and was attributed to the 2016 prescription law.

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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.