Fueled by the opioid crisis, drug overdose deaths continue to skyrocket in Maine, with the state on pace this year to exceed last year’s record by almost 40 percent.

Addiction to opioids – including heroin, fentanyl and prescription painkillers – is causing most of the deaths.

There were 189 drug overdose deaths in Maine through June 30, a 50 percent increase over the same period in 2015, when there were 126 overdose deaths, according to the Maine Attorney General’s Office. If the pace continues, there would be 378 overdose deaths this year. In 2015, 272 people died from drug overdoses in Maine.

“This is just horrendous,” said Mary Jeralds of Lebanon, whose son David Zysk Jr. died of a heroin overdose in November 2015 at age 33. “I thought we were getting somewhere, but these numbers are really discouraging.”

In most cases, multiple drugs were found in the bodies of the overdose victims. Heroin or illicit opioids, such as fentanyl, were contributing factors in 60 percent of this year’s deaths and prescription opioids were found in 64 percent of the overdose victims, according to the AG’s Office.

The increase this year so far has been driven by fentanyl, which is more potent than heroin and often illegally manufactured. Fentanyl was a factor in 44 percent of the deaths, and fentanyl is often mixed with or sold as heroin, according to the AG’s office.


There were 107 deaths from heroin and a total of 157 deaths from heroin, fentanyl, acetyl fentanyl or some combination in 2015.

Fifty-seven people died of heroin overdoses in 2014, and there were 208 overdose deaths overall.

“Fentanyl, heroin, and painkillers are exacting a tremendous toll on our state,” said Attorney General Janet T. Mills in a statement. “These figures are very distressing. People should know there is no safe amount to sniff or shoot. There is no safe party pill, and combinations can be lethal. If it doesn’t kill you it will lead to a lifetime of addiction, illness and hopelessness.”

Steve Cotreau, program manager at the Portland Recovery Community Center, a support group and resource for those trying to recover from addiction, said he’s not surprised at the numbers. Cotreau has seen a surge in people seeking help at the center, and he’s “lost track” of how many overdose deaths he has heard about.

“You get numb, and you learn you have to keep on moving, or you won’t be able to help others who need it,” he said.

Cotreau said the center tries to connect people with treatment, but many times it’s “almost impossible” because of the lack of resources available in Maine.


“This is very disheartening,” Cotreau said. “There’s been a lot of talk, but talk doesn’t solve anything. We haven’t had much action yet to solve this problem.”

About 25,000 to 30,000 Mainers have sought access to drug treatment programs but have been unable to get it, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Cotreau and other treatment advocates have long complained that Maine has few resources devoted to treatment.

“We try to help people, but most of the time we don’t have an answer for them,” Cotreau said.

Dr. Christopher Pezzullo, Maine’s state health officer, said Maine and federal governments have taken action, but it will take some time to see results. For instance, a new law that will give Maine some of the strictest rules in the nation governing opioid prescriptions went into effect in July, and many of its provisions won’t be enforced until 2017. The new law aims to reduce doctor shopping by requiring doctors to use the state’s prescription monitoring program and sets a dosage cap on opioids, among other reforms.

The goal of the law is to prevent people from becoming addicted to prescription opioids in the first place, Pezzullo said. Four or five new heroin users were first addicted to prescription opioids, according to the American Society for Addiction Medicine.


Pezzullo said the new prescription law, combined with a new federal law that will expand access to medication-assisted treatment and other steps the state is taking, should reduce overdose deaths within a few years. Medication-assisted treatment works by reducing cravings in the brain caused by the use of opioids.

“All of these things together hopefully will start to turn the tide,” Pezzullo said. “It’s awful to hear these numbers, but it makes me feel strongly that we’re going in the right direction. We can’t let up. This is a crisis in our state.”

Pezzullo said the state is launching a pilot program to expand Vivitrol, a medication-assisted treatment for opioids that’s not yet in wide use, as well as using public health nurses to help pregnant women get access to drug treatment.

The federal law would increase the number of patients a physician would be allowed to treat with Suboxone, a medication-assisted treatment for opioids, from 100 to 275 each, and also allow nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants to prescribe Suboxone.

Eric Haram, director of Mid Coast Hospital’s Addiction Resource Center in Brunswick, said the death rate is alarming, but not surprising considering Maine’s “ever-growing opioid addiction problem.”

“The scope of the problem has escalated beyond the development of the infrastructure to react to it,” Haram said. “That’s why I continue to advocate for a rapid expansion of medication-assisted treatment statewide.”


Suboxone is a major component of the center’s program, which serves about 800 patients per year.

The center has created a system – using existing resources and funding – that has no waiting list and also serves uninsured patients, which account for about 40 percent of its total.

Haram said he’s willing to share with state health officials how the Addiction Resource Center’s system could be replicated statewide. The program reduces inefficiencies through the use of workflow systems designed by engineers and scheduling software originally created for hair stylists.

The Addiction Resource Center has absorbed a 400 percent increase in opioid patients over the past decade while maintaining the same budget – about $1.4 million, Haram said.

Pezzullo said the center’s program is interesting and should be studied to see if it can be replicated.

“We want to take a look at that program,” Pezzullo said.

For Jeralds, the topic is familiar – her son worked in the treatment community at Preble Street Resource Center. She had heard her son talk about the difficulty of getting people into treatment, and the obstacles people faced in recovery.

Zysk, of Wells, relapsed and died alone in a South Portland hotel room. He had been sober for four years, was maintaining a 3.98 grade point average at the University of Southern Maine, and was expected to graduate this year.

“This just shows we have so much more work that we need to do,” Jeralds said.

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