Volunteer registered nurse Jennifer D'Angelo treats Patrick C.'s skin wounds in a screened off section of the Savage Sisters' community outreach storefront in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, May 24, 2023. Credit: Matt Rourke / AP

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After years of rising overdose deaths, there may be a slight glimmer of hope. So far this year, the number of overdose deaths in Maine is slightly lower than last year.

In the first half of this year, 307 people died of suspected drug overdoses, compared to 331 during the same time the previous year. That’s about a 7 percent decline. A record 723 deaths were attributed to overdoses last year.

In addition, there was a drop in overdoses in total, from 5,155 in the first six months of 2022 to 5,017 from January through June this year.

Gordon Smith, the state’s director of opioid response, said that while the trend was positive, the high number of deaths was still unacceptable.

“It is generally good news. But, to lose 307 Mainers in the first half of the year is still too many,” Smith said in an interview with the Bangor Daily News editorial board.

Smith said the decline in both overdoses and overdose deaths may be attributable to the many steps the state has taken, including making the overdose-reversing drug naloxone more available, increasing the number of spots in treatment facilities and having more peer supports available to those who want to or have stopped substance use.

For these reasons, he said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the downward trend in overdoses. That optimism is bolstered by the more than $235 million Maine is expected to receive over the next two decades in settlement money from pharmaceutical opioid makers. That money will support more treatment and other services.

Smith emphasized that research shows that three-quarters of people with substance use disorder will get into recovery, a process of ending or minimizing substance use as they regain their health and wellbeing.

The state’s updated opioid response strategic plan puts an emphasis on harm reduction as a positive contributor to Maine’s declining overdose deaths.

Harm reduction emphasizes practices, such as syringe exchanges and programs that connect those who use substances with recovery resources and supports. We’d also push for more progress on safe consumption sites and decriminalization of small amounts of drugs.

The bit of encouraging news about overdose deaths, however, is coupled with concerns about a new contaminant in the drug supply. Xylazine, an animal tranquilizer, is now being found in drug samples in all 50 states.

Xylazine is being added to fentanyl, which already is a contributor to the rise in overdose deaths. It is unclear whether xylazine worsens or reduces the risk of an overdose when using opioids. Xylazine puts users in a trance-like state and is linked to severe skin ulcers, which can lead to amputations. It does not respond to naloxone, which is now being used to reverse many opioid overdoses.

At the state’s annual opioid response summit last month, Gov. Janet Mills announced that the state will dedicate $1 million to purchase and distribute test strips to detect xylazine. In addition, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services will work with state health care providers and community organizations to increase awareness of xylazine and its risks, as well as the treatment of its side effects.

“The growing presence of xylazine is making a crisis level situation even worse,” Mills said in a statement on the day of the summit. “When mixed with the already highly dangerous fentanyl, xylazine makes drugs more lethal and naloxone — which has saved thousands of lives in Maine — is powerless to reverse its effects.”

As Smith told the BDN, “there is so much work to do” to end Maine’s opioid epidemic. Hundreds of people are still dying across the state, and that requires continued action and resolve. This year’s overdose numbers so far, however, offer a glimmer of hope for the first time in five years.

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...