October 16, 2011

Painkillers in Maine: A cure that came with a curse

Maine’s out-of-control pill habit is among the worst in the nation, and all of us bear the costs of its abuse.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

First of six parts

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A pharmacist counts out Vicodin pills at a pharmacy in Portland last week. Maine was one of the first states to see an explosion of painkiller addiction and it remains among the worst states in the nation for pill abuse. The human and societal costs associated with the epidemic – almost 1,400 Maine people have died from pharmaceutical drug overdoses in the past decade and thousands more need treatment for addiction – are staggering, experts say.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Additional Photos Below


PAINKILLERS IN MAINE: Stories, video interviews and links to resources.

Ten years ago, Maine’s former U.S. attorney called prescription pain-pill abuse “the greatest criminal problem and possibly the greatest social problem facing Maine.”

The problem, as it turns out, was just getting started.

Maine was one of the first states to witness the explosion of prescription painkiller addiction, and its pill habit, still out of control, is among the worst in the nation. The damage continues to pile up.

Nearly 1,400 Mainers have died from pharmaceutical drug overdoses in the past decade. And all residents bear the costs of the abuse. They pay for the pills, police the crime and care for and treat the addicts.

Substance abuse in Maine is now estimated to cost $1.18 billion a year, or $900 for every man, woman and child, and much of that comes from misuse of prescription drugs.

“It’s extraordinary how deep this epidemic has gone,” said Dr. Mark Publicker, an addiction specialist in Westbrook. “It was eating its way through the culture, and it was diagnosed too late.”

Now human and social costs are at historic highs, leading to a renewed urgency to fight back.

Overdose deaths from pharmaceuticals in Maine set a new record in 2009 – 165 – and for the first time exceeded the number of Mainers killed in motor vehicle accidents. One hundred and sixty-two Mainers died from the drugs in 2010, the second-highest year on record.

Pill abuse continues to rise among teens, according to experts. Nearly one in four high school seniors in 2009  – 23.6 percent – said they have used prescription drugs that were not prescribed to them.

A record number of Maine babies – 572 – were born last year to mothers who were known to have used painkillers or other drugs during pregnancy, more than triple the number in 2005. Most of the babies experienced painful opiate withdrawal and spent their first two weeks in the hospital.

Crimes driven by pill addiction – especially pharmacy robberies and home invasions – are becoming more common and more dangerous, according to police statewide. These crimes have turned county jails into busy detox centers.

Prescription pain pill addicts are seeking treatment in record numbers – nearly 4,000 last year. Maine has more people per capita in state-funded treatment than any other state, eight times the national average, according to federal and state data.

After a decade of efforts to contain the abuse, Maine’s Legislature and the Attorney General’s Office are among those calling for a more aggressive, coordinated response. A seven-year-old effort to track opiate prescriptions statewide, for example, has never been put to full use because of limited resources and participation.

“I think there’s enough fault to go around for everybody,” said Jay McCloskey, who sounded the alarm as Maine’s U.S. attorney a decade ago and is now in private practice.


The 10-year toll and Maine’s inability to contain the epidemic come as little surprise to those who have experienced addiction.

“It just really quickly takes control. And then it takes and takes,” said Daryl Blums, a 27-year-old recovering addict from the Sanford area.

Painkiller abuse is the side effect of powerful new pain relievers introduced more than a decade ago.

Drug makers targeted Maine physicians with promises that the pills were safe and effective. And doctors who took an oath to relieve suffering felt they could no longer allow pain to go untreated, at least not without violating their oath and losing patients.

Maine’s fishermen, loggers and other physical laborers provided plenty of demand for the new pain medications, and the prescriptions flowed. Maine has been a consistent leader in the prescribing of narcotic painkillers such as oxycodone.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

“It’s extraordinary how deep this epidemic has gone,” Dr. Mark Publicker, an addiction specialist in Westbrook, says of prescription pain-pill abuse. “It was eating its way through the culture, and it was diagnosed too late.”

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


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