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3,962. 266. 901.
These are numbers from a recent report on drug overdoses in Maine. But they are more than that. These are people.
From January through May of this year, there were 3,962 total overdoses recorded here in the state. That is a more than 20 percent increase compared to the same timeframe in 2021. There were 266 confirmed or suspected overdose deaths in the 2022 report period, a 9 percent increase compared to the same five months in 2021.
And there were 901 total overdose reversals in the 2022 five month report, so as bad as it has been, it could have been even worse without the availability of lifesaving naloxone (also known as Narcan).
“It is disheartening to see such a dramatic increase in drug overdoses so far this year, although we’re not seeing a similar increase in overdose deaths,” Republican state Sen. Marianne Moore of Washington County said in a statement after the release of the recent report. “Much of that is the result of passage of one of the bills I co-sponsored last year, LD 1333, which allows EMS providers to dispense naloxone right on the spot to those at risk and their family members. We saw dramatic increases in overdose reversals by EMS and the community beginning in June 2021.”
These new overdose numbers represent real people and require real, sustained outrage. We could be heading toward another troubling record when it comes to yearly overdose deaths, and as a state, we cannot allow this to feel or be inevitable.
When confronting a previous record of opioid deaths at the end of 2021, the Mills’ administration’s Director of Opioid Response Gordon Smith urged patience. He pointed to the several positive steps the state has taken in dealing with the opioid epidemic, including increased access to naloxone, more treatment centers and increased efforts to connect people with the recovery services they need. And those have been good developments that the state must continue to build on, to be sure.
But patience was hard then, and we’re officially out of it now.
There is an obvious disconnect between national officials joining this week’s opioid summit and holding Maine up as a national model, at the same time that we continue to experience record-breaking, life-shattering loss. Even as we improve our approach, and even with the understanding that overdoses have increased nationally and been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, clearly we are not doing enough here in Maine.
That is not meant as a slight against the dedicated, inspiring people working in prevention, treatment and recovery — or the people in recovery who are working to overcome a disease. It was these people, and their stories of perseverance and hope in the face of repeated challenges, that were the most powerful during Monday’s opioid summit. Advocates and people in recovery are far more convincing about the need to connect people with lifesaving services than bureaucrats trying to convince us they’re doing a good job at it.
The strides made in prevention, treatment and recovery must continue. Gov. Janet Mills said Monday that up to $4.5 million already approved by the Legislature will be made available to build residential treatment beds for community providers, for example.
But the repeated overdose records again emphasize the need to deploy resources quickly, and to target the substances causing the harm. Overwhelmingly right now, as it has been for several years, that is fentanyl. This often deadly synthetic opioid, coming primarily from Mexico and China, has been involved in 75 percent of the confirmed Maine overdoses so far in 2022.
Mills highlighted ongoing efforts to target traffickers and keep drugs out of Maine communities, and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Administrator Anne Milgram said Monday in video remarks that Penobscot County would be part of an upcoming round of the Biden administration’s Operation Overdrive. According to the DEA, this initiative works to “identify and dismantle criminal drug networks operating in areas with the highest rates of violence and overdoses.”
This deadly cascade of fentanyl that drug cartels have unleashed across the country is a complicated problem. But any solution ultimately has to involve fixing our country’s broken immigration system in a balanced way that includes increased border security to slow the flow of these drugs into the U.S. in the first place.
We still believe you can move to decriminalize small amounts of drugs to stop further harming those battling addiction, and work relentlessly to keep people alive, while ramping up the battle against the drug traffickers themselves. These aren’t mutually exclusive necessities.
In the continued fight to keep people alive and help them recover, we need to do it all. And we need to do it fast, because people are dying.