- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2016

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - Maine saw a 31 percent increase in drug overdose deaths last year as addiction to heroin, fentanyl and other opioids continued to take a toll on the state, officials said Monday.

All told, 272 people died from overdoses in 2015, setting another record following 208 overdose deaths the year before, according to an analysis conducted by Marcella Sorg at the University of Maine Margaret Chase Smith Center.

Attorney General Janet T. Mills called the deaths of victims ranging in age from 18 to 89 shocking. She noted that an average of five people died each week from overdoses.

“These are sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, our neighbors, our friends,” Mills said.

“No one is immune from addiction. No one is immune from overdose. No one is immune from death. We must use every effort to intervene in these people’s lives before it is too late,” she added.

Like the rest of New England, Maine is dealing with an epidemic of addiction and deaths associated with heroin, fentanyl and prescription opioids.

Most of the overdose deaths, 157, were blamed on heroin and non-pharmaceutical fentanyl, while 111 were caused by prescription opioids, but there’s often an overlap of drugs, Sorg said.

It was the first time that overdoses caused by street drugs - heroin and fentanyl - surpassed those linked to prescription opioids, Sorg said. Research indicates that addiction to pharmaceutical opioids eventually pushes users to street drugs, she said.

“The thing that has changed is the availability of heroin and fentanyl,” she said. “It’s coming in from out of state. It’s coming in from out of the country.”

The increased abuse of those injected opioids also are raising concerns about rising levels of hepatitis C and the virus that causes AIDS, she added.

According to the analysis, two-thirds of overdose victims were men, and each county in Maine recorded at least one overdose death.

About 78 percent of the overdose deaths occurred in Maine’s five most populous counties, which account for 65 percent of the state’s population, according to the analysis. Cumberland County recorded nearly a third of the statewide total.

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

The Legislature this session is adopting a proposal sought by Gov. Paul LePage to hire more drug agents. But the governor called it “a little round Band-Aid.” Mills, meanwhile, is pushing to make possession of heroin and similar drugs a felony.

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Follow David Sharp on Twitter at https://twitter.com/David_Sharp_AP. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-sharp .

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This story has been corrected to show that Attorney General Janet T. Mills called the deaths of victims ranging in age from 18 to 89 shocking, not victims 18 to 80.

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