February 26, 2020

Rx abuse blamed in drug death increase

AUGUSTA – Increased prescription drug abuse is largely responsible for a fourfold increase in drug deaths over the past five years in Maine, according to a state report released Friday.

The state is expected to have 161 drug-related deaths in 2002, up from 34 in 1997, according to the report written by Marcella H. Sorg of the Margaret Chase Smith Center for Public Policy at the University of Maine and Dr. Margaret Greenwald, the state’s chief medical examiner.

The bulk of this year’s deaths was accidental, but the number of suicides has also risen. The report estimates that there will be 106 accidental deaths and 55 suicides in 2002, compared with 14 accidents, 19 suicides and one undetermined case in 1997.

“Prescription and illicit drug abuse is killing Mainers at an alarming rate. This report defines the complexity of the problem and provides a foundation upon which to build future drug abuse policy,” said Attorney General Steven Rowe.

Prescription drugs, especially those used for pain, anxiety and depression, caused 63 percent of the accidental deaths and 94 percent of the suicides.

Narcotics were the most frequently implicated drugs and played a role in more than half the cases. Prescription narcotics were involved in 65 percent of those deaths, while heroin was a factor in 37 percent.

Prescription narcotics include methadone, which is used to treat heroin addiction, and oxycodone, a painkiller that is sold in a long-acting form under the brand name OxyContin.

The most frequently implicated drugs were methadone, morphine, heroin, alcohol, oxycodone and diazepam, known commonly as Valium.

For suicides, alcohol, amitriptyline, an anti-depressant sold as Elavil, and propoxyhene, a painkiller sold under the name Darvon, were the most common. Methadone, morphine, heroin and Valium were the most common in accidents.

The number of methadone-related deaths rose from four in 1997 to 14 in 2001. It’s estimated that methadone will be a factor in 34 to 44 percent of all drug deaths in 2002.

Cumberland County was the only county that had a disproportionately high number of methadone-related cases compared to its population. Cumberland County had 28 percent of the cases although it has only 21 percent of the population.

Oxycodone-related deaths rose from one in 1997 to 17 in 2001. So far, 14 cases have been confirmed for 2002. Of those, eight were in Cumberland County and one was in Washington County.

Heroin-related deaths were projected at 26 for 2002, up from 8 in 1997. There was a disproportionately high number of cases in Cumberland County (37 percent), Franklin County (10 percent of cases, compared with 2 percent of the population) and Penobscot County (15 percent of cases, compared with 11 percent of the population).

The findings were based on an analysis of documents from medical examination and toxicological tests.

The study showed that the victims ranged in age from 15 to 92, with an average age of 40. They were more likely to be male and unmarried; they were less likely to have been born in Maine and to have had at least a high school education than the state’s population as a whole.

About 55 percent had a known history of mental illness, and about 50 percent had a history of drug abuse. Many had chronic health conditions, such as obesity and heart, liver and lung disease, which may have contributed to their deaths.

The analysis examined cases of illicit drug abuse as well as cases in which the victims suffered from unintended reactions to multiple prescriptions or particular drugs or dosages. Deaths that resulted from known toxic effects of accepted medical treatment or from chronic substance abuse were not included.

The study was funded by the Maine Justice Assistance Council and the Office of Substance Abuse. Support was provided by the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office and the University of Maine.

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