Forum on opioid use details horrors, hope

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PORTLAND — More treatment, more education and more compassion were the themes April 6 at a community meeting on the battle against opioid addiction and overdoses.

“This drug rewires their brains,” Durham resident David Cleveland said of his three children who are addicted to opioids. “All of (my children) have told me, ‘I never thought I’d get to a point where I would stick a needle in my arm.’”

The forum at the Ocean Gateway Terminal was sponsored by the city and the Maine Opiate Collaborative. The collaborative, established by U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Delahanty II, has held 11 meetings this year, forum moderator Carol Kelly said. It is seeking to develop a three- to five-year strategy to address what is now considered a public-health crisis.

The forum, organized by city Substance Use Prevention Coordinator Bridget Rauscher, featured a panel with Police Chief Michael Sauschuck, Portland Overdose Prevention Project Director Chris Corson, Portland Recovery Community Center Program Director Steve Cotreau, Milestone Foundation Executive Director Bob Fowler and Christopher Poulos, who represented Young People in Recovery.  

Poulos, who is about to earn his law degree after serving a federal prison term for drug-related offenses, said it was crucial for him to step forward.

“I have buried too many friends to remain silent,” he said. “When I was arrested, no one in recovery sat down with me and said, ‘There is another way to live.’”

Cleveland shared a stark and emotional story.

“We have been going through this for the last six years,” he said. “We have drained our funds, and for the last three years, my wife and I have lived through trauma.”

Cleveland said one daughter injured in an automobile accident had to be administered almost twice the lethal dose of pain medication because of the tolerance she developed through opioid use.

He said he has private health insurance to pay for treatment, but with his daughter now in jail because of the accident, her out-of-state placement in a 90-day treatment facility is in peril.

Corson focused on the hazards of improperly stored medications.

“It isn’t something people go wild about, but it has a direct link to youth,” he said, citing statistics that say 66 percent of teens trying pharmaceuticals take improperly stored pills.

A U.S. Department of Justice study established that four of five people arrested for heroin offenses said their opioid use began with prescription medications someone had obtained legally.

Lyman Moore seventh-grader Aalliyah Ferreira and her classmate, Taevonna Caterina, said they have been studying substance use prevention, and the potential access to opioids frightened Ferreira.

“It is kind of crazy to think one of my schoolmates can go away that easily, to need help and not know where to get help,” she said following Cleveland’s comments.

Sauschuck said his department is changing its outlook.

“We have been doing this wrong, and we have been doing it wrong for a long time,” the chief said about not considering treatment, prevention and education on equal footing with arresting users.

In February, Law Enforcement Addiction Advocacy Program liaison Oliver Bradeen began working with city police and people addicted to opioids to help find treatment. Unlike Scarborough’s Operation Hope, LEAAP does not place people in treatment facilities, because Sauschuck didn’t think the demand could not be met.

“I did not want to be out of business by noon the next day,” he said.

Cotreau, who helped establish Operation Hope with Scarborough Police Officer John Gill and Crime Analyst Jamie Higgins, said the city did needed its own approach.

“It would also not work to have two of the programs side-by-side,” he said.

Sauschuck, Cotreau and Fowler said what is needed is more local treatment options, as well as more MaineCare coverage using federal Medicaid funding.

The detox unit at Milestone has more than 40 beds, and is typically filled, Fowler said, increasingly with opioid users. Once detox is complete, he said finding treatment is difficult for anyone without insurance coverage.

“It is a lot of work to sort of cobble a life back together,” Fowler said.

Danny Hatt, a funeral director for Conroy-Tully Crawford Funeral Homes, said he has too often seen the ultimate damage of opioid use.

“There is an idea of what the drug user looks like, and we need to convince people that is not the right idea,” he said. “When we are getting two or three overdose deaths a week, it is wearing us down and we all need to do something about it.” 

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Funeral director Danny Hatt speaks April 6 at a Portland forum on opioid use: “It is wearing us down and we all need to do something about it.”

David Cleveland of Durham, left, listens as middle-schooler Alliyah Ferreira talks about opioid use at a Portland forum April 6. Cleveland said he has three children who are heroin users.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.