Drug deaths in Maine topped 700 for the first time last year as the opioid epidemic continues to impact communities across the state.
In 2022, 716 people died from drug overdoses, according to recently released state overdose statistics. That’s a significant increase from the 631 overdose deaths reported across the state during 2021. It is the third year in a row in which the state has set record overdose numbers.
Experts have attributed the worsening overdose numbers in recent years to the disruptive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on treatment and recovery programs, as well as an increasingly potent drug supply, with the powerful fentanyl cut into a greater variety of illegal drugs.
“To the extent that the overdose deaths are related to fentanyl, these numbers are commensurate with the increase in the amount of fentanyl MDEA is seizing,” said Cmdr. Peter Arno of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. “A total of approximately 7 pounds was seized [in November] in Penobscot, Hancock and Aroostook counties alone. The amount of fentanyl available locally is at a level never seen before.”
Penobscot and Cumberland counties had the most overdose deaths, with 106 and 130, respectively, in 2022, according to state data. Penobscot County saw the same number of overdose deaths in 2021 and 2022.
Maine has identified Penobscot County as a priority county for efforts to reduce overdose deaths. In October, Bangor received a $200,000 grant from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to help strengthen the region’s overdose response team and peer recovery resources.
Last year, 77 percent of last year’s deaths were due to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is up to 100 times more potent than heroin. This year, 79 percent of opioid deaths were attributed to fentanyl.
“Fentanyl is hidden in the supply and it is extremely available,” said Marcella Sorg with the University of Maine’s Rural Drug & Alcohol Research Program. “The isolation, which has been made worse by the pandemic, people are using alone. But with fentanyl, you need instant response with naloxone.”
Fentanyl is increasingly found mixed with other drugs, such as heroin and other non-pharmaceutical drugs, including methamphetamines, according to state data. Aside from fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamines were leading causes of overdose deaths in 2022.