Abuse of the opioid alternative gabapentin is on the rise. According to Pew, drug users say gabapentin pills enhance the euphoric effects of heroin. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A medication marketed as a nonaddictive nerve-pain reliever and anticonvulsant is finding its way into Maine’s illicit drug market.

A seizure of gabapentin, like the 1,253 pills recently in Old Town, is a rarity in the state, but is part of a growing national trend of the drug being found in fatal overdoses. At the same time, prescription rates for gabapentin continue to climb.

The rise in misuse of the medication, which is officially classified as an anticonvulsant, has prompted states across the country to more heavily regulate the drug and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue warnings about the dangers it poses.

On Wednesday, the Old Town Police Department seized a bag containing 1,253 gabapentin pills, along with 14 grams of fentanyl, 29 grams of methamphetamine and other drugs, while the department served a search warrant.

The department’s discovery of the pills stands out because the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency has yet to come across any gabapentin in its investigations, according to Shannon Moss, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

Multiple studies from across the country have found that gabapentin can enhance the high brought on by opioids like heroin and fentanyl. But the drug can cause a person’s lungs to stop working correctly, leading to a buildup of carbon dioxide in the body.

But the pills have been found consistently within a minority of fatal drug overdoses in the state throughout the years, said Marcella Sorg, a University of Maine forensic anthropologist, and a key part of the team tracking overdoses in Maine.

A study completed last May by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 23 states, including Maine, gabapentin has become more prevalent in fatal drug overdoses.

According to the study during 2019–2020, gabapentin detection and involvement in fatal drug overdoses increased alongside the rising trend in overall overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2018, medical professionals in Appalachian states began to notice that gabapentin was showing up in a substantial number of overdose deaths, according to a 2018 report from Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

In 2017, for example, gabapentin was involved in more than a third of fatal overdoses in Kentucky, Pew reported.

At the end of 2019, the FDA updated required warnings and oversight over gabapentinoids — the parent drug of gabapentin — in the wake of a growing number of fatal overdoses being linked to opioids and gabapentin, according to a December 2019 press release from the federal agency.

At the time, Dr. Douglas Throckmorton, the FDA’s deputy director for regulatory programs, said the drugs were beginning to be used alone and in conjunction with others such as heroin and fentanyl with disastrous effects.

“In response to these concerns, we are requiring updates to the labeling of gabapentinoids to include new warnings of potential respiratory depressant effects,” he said. “We are also requiring the drug manufacturers to conduct clinical trials to further evaluate the abuse potential of gabapentinoids, particularly in combination with opioids, with special attention being given to assessing the respiratory depressant effects.”

That same year, Maine State Police officers from Troop G, which patrols the Maine Turnpike from the New Hampshire/Maine state line in Kittery to Augusta, arrested four people following a traffic stop and subsequent search of the vehicle the group was driving. During that search, troopers seized 842 gabapentin tablets, according to an Oct. 23, 2019, Maine State Police Facebook post.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misattributed the source of a 2018 report.

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...