News analysis

Opioid addiction continues to cripple state

Posted:  Monday, August 6, 2018 - 7:45am

The current opioid crisis plaguing the country is something that is hard to ignore, with the seemingly constant news coverage. However, it is still easy for many to forget that this rampant addiction problem affects Maine, and not just the greater United States.

More recently the issue of addiction was raised in our own community with Boothbay Harbor Police Chief Bob Hasch issuing a warning over the potential of high potency drugs in the Midcoast region. This declaration was spurred on by two recent deaths in Belfast and an ambulance response to an overdose on July 26. In light of these events it becomes pertinent to take stock of not only the prevalence of drug addiction, but the country’s current ongoing health crisis.

OxyContin hit the market in 1996 and, thus began the circulation of what was seen at the time as the new standard in pain medication. Purdue Pharma, the manufacturers of OxyContin, aggressively promoted the product to the medical community. In a study conducted by Doctor Art Van Zee in the American Journal of Public Health it was found that between its initial release in 1996 to 2001, Purdue held more than 40 “national pain-management and speaker-training” conferences in resorts across the country. Professionals across the medical field from physicians to pharmacists were invited to these seminars, at no personal expense, to hear about the practical applications of this new drug. Van Zee, reports, “It is well documented that this type of pharmaceutical company symposium influences physicians’ prescribing. . .”

This proved to be true, as Van Zee asserts, as in the early 1990s, the number of painkiller prescriptions issued had been steadily increasing by two to three million a year; the number of prescriptions inexplicably jumped to eight million in 1996 after OxyContin’s release. This number would rise again to 11 million in 1999, a year after Purdue released a promotional video to be used in physician waiting rooms. In this same span of time, Purdue saw its sales rise from $48 million in 1996 to $1.1 billion in 2000.

In 2007, Purdue and three of its executives were charged for downplaying the addictive nature of the drug, culminating in a $635 million settlement with the U.S government. By this time, OxyContin was already a leading drug of abuse in the United States.

An estimated 418 Mainers, averaging about one a day, died last year due to drug overdoses, a startling 11 percent increase from the death toll of 378 the Portland Press Herald reported in 2016. Meanwhile, the National Institute of Drug Abuse reports that as of March this year, 115 Americans were dying everyday nationwide from opioid overdoses. The majority of these overdoses are the fault of Oxycontin and other prescription opioids, but fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin, is quickly becoming the main perpetrator of drugs related deaths due its deadly nature.

Rep. Patricia Hymanson, the Democratic chair of the Maine Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, in an interview with the Portland Press Herald, expressed her hope for future efforts by the state to combat this crisis. “We have many ways in front of us to help the state move forward. The most important one to me is the hub-and-spoke treatment model. I’ll support that forever.”

The bill to which Hymanson is referring would create a series of “hubs” around the state to direct people seeking treatment to programs that would best fit their needs. A similar plan was proposed in Vermont and has been met with success thus far. If enacted, the bill is expected to cost the state an estimated $6 million annually.

Unfortunately, most of the legislation concerning the opioid crisis over the last year has been largely ignored by the Maine Legislature and Senate. The Portland Press Herald attributes this mostly to issues of budget, with laws dying before they are even voted upon due to the lack of funds. The ones that have passed have mostly dealt with the tightening of opioid prescription practices, with no mention of how to deal with those already addicted.

In the absence of state or national support, the community is taking its own steps to combat the problem of addiction. Hasch said in a recent article in this newspaper that a peer-to-peer center will be opening in Boothbay Harbor soon that will provide peer support for those trying to get treatment. Hasch also encouraged those battling addiction or their families to call Addiction Outreach Program Director Holly Stover at 207-350-7477.