MANCHESTER — A slate of professionals representing a broad spectrum of specialties has joined forces to combat a tidal wave of opiate abuse they say threatens the state.
“Everyone is part of the problem,” said Attorney General Janet Mills, who is part of the executive panel overseeing the collaborative with U.S. Attorney Thomas Delahanty and Maine Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Morris. “Everyone is part of the solution. This is an all-hands-on-deck approach.”
Mills said overdose deaths from heroin or fentanyl this year are on pace to eclipse 2014’s record numbers. In 2014, 100 deaths were attributed to the two opiates – 57 from heroin and 43 from fentanyl. Through the first six months of this year, 37 deaths were caused by heroin overdoses and 26 from fentanyl, according to data compiled by the state’s chief medical examiner. The state tests for more than 400 drugs when an overdose is the suspected cause of death.
Mills said there were 21 suspected overdose deaths in October and 23 in November. Those deaths usually involve a cocktail of substances, including not only heroin and fentanyl, but cocaine and prescription drugs.
Augusta Rescue has responded to 50 reports of overdoses this year, according to Fire Chief Roger Audette. In 2007, Augusta responded to only six such cases.
Mills this week sent a letter to leaders of medical associations across the state seeking their help in reducing the soaring rate of opiate addiction. The letter includes case summaries from the state Medical Examiner’s Office from the 21 apparent overdose deaths that occurred in one recent month. Eight involved prescription medication, Mills said.
The collaborative, which formed a few months ago, is comprised of three subgroups – law enforcement, prevention and harm reduction, and treatment – each assigned the task of gathering information and putting forward recommendations.
“The committees are doing all the work,” said Gordon Smith, executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association and one of four collaborative directors. “All of this is in the developmental stages, even though a lot has happened.”
And there is much work to do, officials said.
Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuk, who is co-chairman of the collaborative’s law enforcement subcommittee with Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, said overdose calls in his city are up 20 percent from last year’s record pace. The Portland Fire Department increased by 45 percent its doses of Narcan, which is used as an emergency treatment for a heroin overdose.
“That’s what our first responders are seeing day-to-day,” Sauschuk said.
Mills said more than 1 million opiate-based painkillers are prescribed each year. Mills included a link to the Center for Disease Control’s new prescription guidelines and urged physicians to follow them.
“No one group or sector is the cause of the problem or the source for the cure,” Mills said. “Nor will the problem be solved by a single act, a single piece of legislation or one governmental fiat.
“But your members and their staffs can be part of the solution by reining in the proliferation of opioid painkillers in our state.”
Morris said headway is being made outside of the subcommittee’s work, including the addition of 10 Maine Drug Enforcement Agents, a new task force to coordinate law enforcement’s effort and the Maine Information and Analysis Center, which also is known as the “fusion center.”
Morris said the state’s next crisis is methamphetamines – drug agents have dismantled 53 methamphetamine laboratories this year — and the rise in gang activity. Morris said drugs are being funneled into the state by entrepreneurs looking to tap into a wide-open market.
“They are businessmen who are ruthless,” Morris said. “Those people you see from New York are not our neighbors. They’re here to poison our children.”
Sauschuk said his subcommittee is looking for ways to share information better among different local, county and state law enforcement agencies and hope to develop programs to be implemented across the state. Sauschuk praised individual departments that have developed programs to combat the problem, such as Augusta’s angel program, but said such an individualized approach is inefficient and prone to duplicating efforts. In August, Augusta police announced an effort to encourage drug addicts to come to the police station, where they would be paired with someone who can help them seek treatment.
Sauschuk said the task force will examine those programs to find out what is really working.
“We’re looking to see if there is a best practice model we can push out across the state,” he said.
Patricia Kimball, program director for the Wellspring program in Bangor, who leads the collaborative’s treatment subcommittee, said her team is gathering information on best treatment practices and looking for ways to improve access to that treatment.
“It’s a daunting task at times, but we do know time is of the essence,” she said.
Substance Abuse Prevention Project Director William Paterson, of the Saco-based Coastal Maine Healthy Communities Coalition, who is co-chairman of the prevention and harm reduction subcommittee, said he got involved with the project because he is concerned about the future of his children and grandchildren.
“I’m really worried about what is going on in the state right now,” he said.
Former Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe, now with the Maine Community Foundation, said opiate addiction is harming the state on every level, including financially. In addition to the cost to the legal and medical systems, employers are losing workers, he said. The foundation and the Maine Health Access Foundation will provide financial support for a series of community forums.
“This isn’t just a social imperative. This is an economic imperative,” Rowe said. “Economically, this is one of the most serious issues facing this state. I hope we recognize that.”