Mid-Coast law enforcement, health providers see new urgency, awareness about opioids

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BRUNSWICK — Maine is in the midst of an opioid epidemic, so widespread it is recognized from the hallways of local addiction clinics to the chambers of the Statehouse.

On Tuesday night, law enforcement and health providers gathered at Frontier Cafe to discuss what the situation means for the state and, specifically, the Mid-Coast.

From 2013 to 2014, the number of drug overdose deaths in Maine rose by more than 27 percent, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry on Tuesday said the crisis in Maine is a result of failed drug policy.

He recalled that when he was elected in 2008, the bulk of his department’s drug busts began to turn up more and more synthetic opioids, mainly prescription pills like Oxycontin.

After a drug summit organized by the state’s attorney general in 2011, law enforcement “did a really good job” at cracking down on the pills, he said.

“What we didn’t do was provide any sort of sustainable treatment program,” he said. “What we didn’t do was recognize the very severe effects and power of the opioid.”

The increased and coordinated drug arrests cut down the supply of pills, he said. But what that did, he argued, “was create a market that was looking for a product.”

As a result, “cheap heroin … took a hold of this state,” he said. “Next thing we know, we’re losing people left and right.”

It’s not just law enforcement that noticed the spike in heroin use. Eric Haram, director of Mid Coast Hospital’s Addiction Resource Center, said his department has expanded from having one part-time physician in 2006 to eight in 2016.

In the same period, his budget has grown from $700,000 to $1.8 million.

The featured speaker Tuesday night was Skip Gates of Skowhegan who, in 2009, lost his son Will to a heroin overdose.

Gates was influential in making a documentary called “The Opiate Effect,” about his son’s life, which Frontier screened Tuesday. Gates now shows the film in schools all over New England to educate kids about opioid and heroin use.

Will Gates attended the University of Vermont on a presidential scholarship, and was a champion alpine skier. “He was the last guy you’d expect would get hooked up … with heroin,” his father said.

But such is the face of the new heroin epidemic, the panelists argued.

“It’s not just one type of kid,” said Melissa Fochesato, director of Access Health, a Brunswick-based substance abuse prevention center.

“We’re not going to be able to arrest our way out of this,” Gates added.

Arguing that most current heroin addicts trace their addiction back to a legitimate prescription, he said it would take education, recovery, and law enforcement to beat back the tide of substance abuse.

Some argued that this change is already starting to take shape. Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Perry said that four years ago, he spent the majority of his time prosecuting drug crimes.

“But there’s been a shift in paradigm,” he said. Now he spends about 30 percent of his time in court, and the rest doing community outreach with people like Gates.

There are signs of progress, too.

Merry said that compared to the state, the rate of overdose deaths in the Mid-Coast region is relatively low. The statewide average is 13.7 drug-related overdose deaths per 100,000 people, he said. By contrast, Sagadahoc County, which includes Topsham and Bath, is 8.6.

Merry said the statistics are a direct result of a new approach to how law enforcement treats drug addiction.

Now, when they pick up or arrest somebody struggling with addiction, “we can pick up the phone and call Eric (Haram),” of Mid Coast Hospital’s Addiction Resource Center, he said.

Haram said that as more people find access to treatment, treatment itself needs to evolve.

For one, he said, medical providers are learning that treatment does not look the same for all people; studies show that men are more likely to relapse after feelings of entitlement, while women often relapse due to feelings of hopelessness.

Additionally, women who are married while receiving treatment are actually more at risk of relapsing, while for men, it’s the opposite. He said it’s important to support science-based, effective programming.

“Addictive disorders are a medical illness,” he said. “We need to (fund) treatment.”

At the end of the discussion, a young woman in the audience raised her hand.

Sarah Siegel said she had been clean from heroin and other substances for 8 1/2 years. A mother of three, she was attending the event with her husband, Tom, and her mother, Liz Hertz.

She recalled her own winding road to recovery, which included trips to the hospital and being turned away for treatment.

She finally got treatment through a Methadone clinic, and her first child was born while on the drug. She participated in an experimental trial in Mexico for a drug called Ibogain to break the Methadone reliance.

She attributes finally breaking the cycle to completing a 12-step program, and to the support of her family.

“Addiction is a disease of isolation,” she said. “I pulled on everything … (but) my family didn’t turn their back on me.”

The talk Tuesday evening “gives me hope that things are changing,” she said.

And she stressed that it must continue to change as the problem evolves.

“The epidemic has gone out of the alleyways and into people’s living rooms,” she said.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.