Image credit: WMTW Fentanyl driving record drug overdose deaths in Maine
The 636 deaths, a 23% increase over 2020, are largely the result of fentanyl being added to other drugs. Increased isolation and other pandemic challenges also were factors.
Shortly before Christmas, Catherine Ryder received news that no mother wants to hear. Her son, Colin Gallagher, a 35-year-old Iraq War veteran who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and physical disabilities, had died from a drug overdose.
Gallagher was one of an estimated 636 people to die from a drug overdoses in 2021 – a new record for Maine and a 23 percent increase from the record set in 2020. The rise in deaths stems from fentanyl being laced into other drugs without the users’ knowledge, along with increased isolation and other challenges stemming from the pandemic, researchers told lawmakers this week.
Ryder said her son began using substances as a teenager, before graduating high school and signing up for the U.S. Army. He served three years in the infantry, she said, including an 18-month deployment to Baghdad, where he experienced combat. When he returned home, he turned to substance use to self-medicate, she said. He had been in and out of recovery since then.
“He struggled greatly when he returned home,” she said. “He was an amazing human being. My son was so much more than his addiction. He touched a lot of lives that we did not know about.”
As CEO of Tri-County Mental Health Services, Ryder said she has spent decades building programs to fight addiction. She did everything she could to help her son, including warning him about the dangers of fentanyl, which he promised never to use. He lived with his mother for the past three years, seeking to recover so he could be reunited with his 12-year-old daughter.
But in the end, addiction won. The last time she saw her son was when he smiled and told her that he loved her, before heading out the door to go to a friend’s house to watch movies.
“It’s so hard,” Ryder said. “You never know when that day was going to come. Our family has known that for years that this was a possibility and you think you’re ready but you’re just never ready to say goodbye to someone you love.”
Marcella Sorg, a researcher with the University of Maine, told lawmakers this week that researchers are still waiting for toxicology results, which can take 10 weeks, before finalizing the numbers.
Sorg estimated that 636 people died of drug overdoses last year, a 23 percent increase over the 515 deaths recorded in 2020. Fentanyl, a fast-acting synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, is driving the deaths, she said. Long mixed with opioids, it is now showing up in cocaine and methamphetamine.
Sorg said Maine’s crisis reflects the national trend.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there were roughly 101,000 fatal overdoses for the 12-month period ending in June – a nearly 21 percent increase over the previous 12 months.
A FENTANYL STORM
Fentanyl caused 77 percent of the total overdose deaths in Maine, up 10 percent over the previous year, Sorg said. And toxicology reports cite an average of three different substances involved in fatal overdoses.
“It really is a fentanyl storm here,” Sorg said. “The drug supply is spiked with fentanyl and users might not know that fentanyl is going to be in it.”
Roy McKinney, the director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, told lawmakers that seizures of fentanyl, cocaine and meth have doubled and in some cases tripled in the last two years. The state is beginning to see an increase in crystal meth that’s produced in Mexico and smuggled across the border, he said.
“The stimulant market has just exploded,” McKinney said.
While 7 percent of all known overdoses were fatal, syringe exchange programs report that as many as 75 percent of non-fatal overdoses are not reported, Sorg said. She also sees a glimmer of hope in the state’s distribution of naloxone, which can reverse an overdose and prevent death if someone administers it in time.
Sorg believes the pandemic also has helped spur the increase in fatal overdoses. She said more people are using fentanyl-laced drugs in isolation, which means bystanders are less able to intervene with naloxone, which goes by the brand name Narcan.
Kari Morrissette, executive director of the Church of Safe Injection, said the overdose deaths highlight the need for better harm-reduction policies, including broadening the Good Samaritan law, which protects people who report overdoses from criminal charges. The Church of Safe Injection is a syringe exchange operating in the Westbrook, Lewiston, Rumford, Dixfield and Bethel. It plans to open its first brick-and-mortar exchange in Lewiston next month to compliment its mobile services.
‘ANGRY AND FRUSTRATED’
“I think I speak for myself as well as other community organizers when I say that we’re just angry and frustrated,” she said. “Even though times are getting a lot more progressive as far as implementing harm reduction into a lot of places we’re still lacking in much-needed areas and a lot of these deaths are preventable.”
Ryder said her agency, Tri-County Mental Health Services, has teams that respond to overdose sites with law enforcement in hopes of getting people who survive an overdose into treatment. They, too, have reported more cases of fentanyl showing up in a variety of drugs.
Ryder is still waiting for toxicology report on her son’s death, but says she was told by law enforcement that fentanyl was found at the scene.
She had noticed a change in her son over the last year.
“I think COVID had a lot do with how my son sort of slipped away,” Ryder said. “He had been receiving services at the (Veterans Affairs clinic) in Portland was very happy with those services. He was doing OK. He was using here and there, but was pretty stable. Over the past year in particular he was telling me how lonely he felt, even though he was living with me.”
Her son’s death has made Ryder more committed to her work. And she’s less likely to mute her support for safe consumption sites, where people can use drugs under medical supervision. Such sites are touted as a way to reduce overdose deaths and help get people into treatment programs.
“I’m going to be doubling down on the work that I’m doing,” she said. “It’s (impacting) everybody from all walks of life. We are burying people with Ph.D.s who are living in mansions and we are burying people who are poor and homeless.”
Author: Randy Billings is a government watchdog and political reporter who has been covering Portland City Hall for the Press Herald since 2012. His beat touches on a wide range of topics, including immigration, homelessness, education, tourism, real estate development and the economy in Maine’s largest city. He has been a Portland-based journalist since 2005. A life-long Mainer who loves the outdoors, Randy is also a bassist who brews his own beer at his North Yarmouth home, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Source: Portland Press Herald, January 19, 2022, https://www.pressherald.com/2022/01/19/maine-shatters-annual-record-for-overdose-deaths/