Officials: Maine on track for record overdose deaths in 2016

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PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine is on pace to set another record for overdose deaths in 2016 because of increased abuse of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin, officials said Monday.

Data from Maine's chief medical examiner indicates there were 189 drug overdose deaths in the first six months of the year, a 50 percent increase from the same period last year, according to Dr. Marcella Sorg, of the University of Maine Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center.

The chief culprit behind the increase is fentanyl, an illicit drug that's many times stronger and more lethal than heroin or morphine, officials said.

"Fentanyl, heroin, and painkillers are exacting a tremendous toll on our state," Attorney General Janet Mills said in a statement.

Maine and the rest of New England are dealing with an epidemic of addiction and deaths associated with heroin, fentanyl and prescription opioids. In 2015, Maine experienced 272 overdose deaths, with 126 in the first half of the year.

During the six-month period, fentanyl and similar compounds were a factor in 44 percent of overdose deaths and pharmaceutical painkillers were a factor in another 45 percent, but two or more drugs including alcohol were used in combination in 80 percent of overdose deaths, according to the analysis.

A task force has been formed to address the state's heroin epidemic, with three teams focusing on law enforcement, education and treatment.

On the front lines, there's greater access to the drug overdose antidote Narcan by law enforcement officials. To date the attorney general has distributed 866 doses of Narcan to 26 law enforcement agencies, and doses have been administered 14 times at overdose scenes, according to the analysis.

The state Legislature overwhelming rejected Republican Gov. Paul LePage's veto of a bill that would increase the availability of Narcan. The new law allows pharmacists to provide Narcan to family members and friends of drug addicts who are at risk of overdoses.

Mills said it's possible for opioid abusers to get help but it's much better not to try the drugs in the first place.

"People should know there is no safe amount to sniff or shoot," she said. "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."

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