STATE HOUSE, BOSTON — Opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts declined by 10 percent in the first nine months of 2017 when compared to the same time period last year, the Department of Public Health reported Monday.

The new data marks the second consecutive quarter that estimated opioid deaths have dropped, though the presence of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl continued to rise, with the report tracking fentanyl present in 81 percent of overdose deaths where a toxicology screening occurred.

The number of opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts has increased each year since 2010.

There were a total of 1,470 estimated and confirmed opioid overdose deaths through September, 167 less than the 1,637 from January through September of 2016, according to the DPH report.

A total of 2,094 people died of confirmed opioid overdoses in 2016, and 1,687 in 2015, updated DPH figures show.

The last quarterly report, released in August, showed a 5 percent decline in opioid deaths from the comparable period - the first six months of 2016.

"This new report shows some trend lines that are moving in the right direction as we work to fight the opioid and heroin epidemic in Massachusetts, but there are still too many people dying from overdoses," Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement. Baker said his administration "looks forward to introducing new proposals in the near future and working with the Legislature to pass meaningful reform to strengthen our efforts from prevention to recovery."

Baker, who served on President Donald Trump's opioid commission, has been working on new state-level legislation to address the epidemic. In August, he filed a bill that would make drug dealers subject to manslaughter charges in cases where the substance they sold led to a fatal overdose.

As they take up criminal justice reform packages, state lawmakers have also been seeking ways to combat trafficking, particularly of fentanyl. Before passing a bill late last month that repeals mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, the Senate tacked on an amendment from Minority Leader Bruce Tarr that would allow second-degree murder charges to be levied against people who knowingly traffic drugs that result in death.

A criminal justice bill (H 4011) the House is considering this week would make changes to the fentanyl trafficking law, adding a minimum penalty of three and a half years, and amending it so that trafficking penalties kick in for sales of 10 grams of a mixture containing fentanyl, rather than the current law's 10 net grams of fentanyl. Andover Republican Rep. James Lyons filed an amendment that would extend manslaughter charges to anyone "found guilty of trafficking heroin or fentanyl that results in the death of the user."

--Katie Lannan, State House News Service

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