Bangor has seen more suspected drug overdoses this year than Portland and Lewiston despite having a smaller population, according to data from police.
The data don’t tell the full story of what’s happening, though, Bangor Police Department spokesperson Wade Betters said. A drug overdose will go unreported if first responders aren’t called, for instance.
As of Tuesday, Bangor police have responded to 140 suspected drug overdose calls so far this year, 18 of which were fatal, according to Betters. Those numbers don’t include overdoses in which a friend or bystander administers Naloxone, a nasal spray that reverses a drug overdose, and the person is taken to a hospital without police being called.
Meanwhile, Portland, with a population more than double Bangor’s, has seen 115 suspected overdoses, eight of which were fatal, Betters said. Lewiston has also seen 119 suspected overdoses, three of which were fatal.
Betters said overdoses are considered suspected until police receive toxicology results in fatal overdose cases, which can take weeks.
Bangor’s preliminary overdose count matches the rise in overdoses Penobscot County has seen in recent years, according to the Maine Drug Data Hub, a partnership between several state departments, the governor’s office and the University of Maine.
In 2021, Penobscot County saw 105 overdoses, making up 15 percent of the state’s total 632 overdoses despite the county having only 11 percent of the Maine population, according to state data.
The year before, Penobscot County had 94 overdoses, 19 percent of the state’s annual total of 504. In 2019, however, the county had only 53 overdoses, making up 14 percent of the 380 overdoses in Maine that year.
Daniel Soucier, a research associate at UMaine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center that gathers data on Maine’s opioid crisis, said it’s difficult to pinpoint one reason why Bangor’s overdoses have doubled in just a few years.
Overdoses across the U.S. usually follow the trend of the international drug supply containing harmful “cointoxicants” like fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, as has been the case with Maine’s rising overdose rates, Soucier said.
Drug overdoses in Maine started to rise around 2019 just before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Robin Carr, Bangor Health Department substance use prevention coordinator. Around that time, fentanyl became more prominent in Maine’s drug supply, which made substances more lethal.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Illegally made fentanyl began appearing in other drugs sold in the illegal U.S. drug market, such as heroin and cocaine, because of its euphoric effect.
With no smell or taste, it’s nearly impossible to tell if a drug is laced with fentanyl unless it’s tested. And it doesn’t take much to have a deadly effect. Just a few grains of powder can be potentially lethal, according to the CDC.
Of the total fatal overdoses in Maine in 2021, fentanyl was found to be the cause of death in 77 percent of cases, according to state data. That’s up from 67 percent in 2020.
Social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic also changed Mainers’ drug usage, said Carr and Soucier.
“Folks who were in recovery or in stable drug use patterns began using chaotically,” Soucier said. “Also, the drug supply was interrupted and folks sometimes bought from dealers they did not know, making the supply unknown and less safe.”
Carr said the sudden elimination of in-person treatment and support when things switched to a fully remote format was difficult for those with substance use disorder, especially if they didn’t have access to a computer.
“Some people have called it an epidemic within a pandemic,” Carr said.
Despite the high overdose numbers from Bangor, Carr said she’s encouraged by the people seeking help from Bangor’s recovery network.
“Those things are harder to measure, but we are seeing signs that people are reaching out for help in ways they didn’t before,” Carr said. “It’s a slow path forward, but we feel reassured that we’re putting these pieces into place that are proven effective.”
Local and state resources like the Bangor Health Department and the Options program work to make supplies like Naloxone, clean syringes and fentanyl test strips readily available to those with Substance Use Disorder who are not ready for recovery treatment. Carr said something as simple as providing supplies is “often a life-saving service for people.”
Penobscot County is also home to multiple recovery centers, including Northern Light’s Acadia Hospital and Penobscot Community Health Center’s Hope House, that offer substance use treatment.