Drug overdose deaths declined 14 percent in the first quarter of 2019, continuing a downward trend that began last year.

The Maine Attorney General’s Office on Thursday reported 74 drug fatalities through March 31, compared to 86 deaths in the first quarter of 2018. After several years of increases, drug overdose deaths declined from 417 in 2017 to 354 in 2018.

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said that despite the drop-off, he remains concerned about the opioid crisis and the increase in deaths caused by other drugs, such as cocaine.

“The first-quarter data shows that most deaths were caused by two or more drugs, and that cocaine-involved deaths have increased. We should expect that as this crisis evolves, patterns will shift and as a society we will have to respond accordingly,” Frey said in a statement.

Deaths caused by fentanyl were 66 percent of all deaths and 79 percent of opioid deaths, the report said.

“Cocaine-involved deaths constituted 31 percent of deaths, up from 25 percent in 2018,” Frey said. That increase mirrors national increases in cocaine- and methamphetamine-involved deaths, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nationally, cocaine-involved and psychostimulant-involved death rates increased by 52.4 percent and 33.3 percent, respectively, from 2015-2016, the CDC said.

Gordon Smith, whom Gov. Janet Mills appointed to be the state’s first director of opioid response, said he was heartened by the downward trend in overdose deaths, but that it was not a cause for celebration.

Smith said based on information he has gathered from medical professionals, much of the decrease is attributed to an increase in the availability of naloxone, the overdose antidote that’s known commonly by its brand name, Narcan.

Mills, a Democrat, has pushed to make the antidote widely available, a shift from her Republican predecessor, Paul LePage, who fought efforts for widespread distribution of Narcan.

Smith said the state does not yet have enough data to say for certain what had contributed to the downward trend in opioid deaths, and officials hope to have a clearer picture as they gather more information.

He added that a summit on the state’s overdose crisis, set for Monday in Augusta, is expected to have more than 1,000 participants. Smith said he sees that as a sign that people have a greater sense of hope that progress is being made on the problem. He said the stigma around substance use disorders was also being broken down through more education and outreach.

“More and more people are seeing this for the chronic illness it is and treating people with the dignity and the respect they need so we are doing better at connecting with people and not isolating them,” Smith said. Even so, Maine will see between 800 and 900 drug-affected infants born in 2019, he said, and prevention education around all types of substance use disorder is still important.

“Alcohol is still killing way more people and nicotine kills the most people of all, although more slowly and not as dramatically so it’s often not as compelling a story,” Smith said. “We’ve got a lot to do still, but it’s good to see the numbers go down and I don’t think it would be cliché to say we won’t be satisfied with the work we are doing until there aren’t any overdose deaths.”

 

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