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Substance Abuse, Opioids, and Addiction at Sea

Broken-Lobster-Pot1200x636A new bill is on the way to the Maine State Legislature, and if Representative Mick Devin can get approval next year, a new task force of healthcare professionals and community leaders will work on one of the state of Maine’s greatest maritime issues; opioid drug abuse and addiction.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collect more data, it is reported that approximately 60,000 Americans died in 2016 from opioid overdose, almost a 100% increase over 2015, with 33,000 confirmed deaths. Nearly half of those involved prescription opioids. The same report concludes that among the deaths that involved Fentanyl, the Northeast states of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island were among the highest in the nation. While there are currently no statistics by occupation, this is an issue that often hits the fishing industry hard.

The opioid crisis is especially complicated for people who work at sea. The work is physically demanding. Long hours of physical labor can cause severe pain, and injuries that are not allowed time to heal may become chronic. Fishermen are often at sea for weeks at a time or work in very remote locations away from healthcare. When healthcare is available, and opioids prescribed, the medication often runs out while workers are at sea. If pain is still present, workers may seek to utilize other options.

Of people currently using heroin, 80% report that they started using opioids via prescription painkillers. A person who has become addicted to opioids may switch to heroin because it can be readily available, and often costs less than prescription drugs. This issue may be exacerbated if a person is without health insurance.

Just as isolation and remote locations make getting proper healthcare a challenge, getting help for addiction can be even more complicated, as there are not as many treatment options. While Alaska has not been included in the current CDC studies on addiction, Alaska Commissioner of Public Safety Walt Monegan is spearheading a new program that begins with a letter to all commercial fishing vessel owners, asking that they actively work to prevent opioid abuse and distribution of opioids on their vessels.

“It is in the best interest of every vessel owner, crew, their families and all Alaskans for the commercial fishing fleet to be free of opioid abuse,” Monegan said. “All Alaskans have the right to work and live in safe and healthy environments, and it is time to reverse the destructive impact opioid abuse has had on our state, so I am reaching out to you to ask that you do your part to ensure that Alaska’s fishing crews are safe from the impact of opioid abuse.”
A ship’s crew is much like a family. If you have a problem with opioids, it affects everyone on your team. Reach out to someone you trust and ask for help. If you see someone who you suspect has a problem, reach out; offer assistance. Working while taking opioids, prescription or other, increases risk of injury to coworkers, one’s self, overdose, or even death. Addiction is a widespread disease facing many in our nation. Speak up. Help is available.