Portland substance abuse panel takes public health approach

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PORTLAND — As the federal government begins to view substance abuse through the prism of public health, rather than law enforcement, a city subcommittee is preparing to assess the scope of addiction, prevention and recovery in Portland.

At its monthly meeting on Thursday, Oct. 9, the subcommittee established by Mayor Michael Brennan heard more about the policy shift from Michael Botticelli, acting director of the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy.

“We need to deal with people who have addictive disorders,” said Botticelli, himself a recovering addict who has been sober 25 years. “We need to be efficient, but also humane in how we respond to those issues.”

Botticelli’s talk came during two days of visits to Bangor and Portland, where he announced 19 state communities would share in a $7.5 million grant to establish or continue “Drug-Free Community” programs.

The federal government has awarded these grants to community groups and coalitions to combat youth substance abuse since 1997.

Much of what will be studied by the subcommittee was also outlined by Botticelli, who praised the local “21 Reasons” effort to prevent under-aged drinking. The project is led in part by subcommittee member Joanna Morrissey; it gathers educators, administrators, law enforcement officials, parents and business leaders to encourage parents to speak to their children about substance abuse.

“Parents often feel powerless, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Botticelli said.

He added local communities need to assess their abilities to help provide treatment and recovery services, including having enough trained physicians to administer drugs used to treat opiate addictions.

The shift from law enforcement to public health to combat substance abuse has a supporter in subcommittee member Chris Poulos.

Poulos, now studying for a law degree, called himself “an active member of the recovery community.”

“I would say I definitely support the new approach, and the shift within the administration,” he said. “Right now, what is happening is I am seeing people in leadership saying the idea of law enforcement only has failed.”

Poulos said it was time to look into diversionary programs administered before someone is charged or indicted, but after police know they are involved in illegal drug activity.

Incarceration carries consequences beyond the addict, including the possibility of tearing a family apart and setting children up to repeat the cycle.

“What is it doing to take a low-level crack dealer who is addicted and maybe has a wife and kids, and put him in a federal prison for 10 years?” Poulos asked.

He also accompanied Botticelli on a visit to a local treatment center and said the weight of Botticelli’s recovery added resonance to his message.

“It was nothing short of monumental, it was huge” he said. “That’s the beauty of hearing from someone who has lived it.”

Incarceration can carry two types of frustrations for Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce, a subcommittee member who noted incidents of attempted drug smuggling are increasing at the Cumberland County Jail.

Joyce said smugglers will get themselves arrested for minor crimes while trying to bring in opiates or medications like suboxone, used to prevent opiate withdrawals.

“Really, these are mules,” he said.

Once incarcerated, substance abuse treatment options are limited to 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, Joyce said.

Other treatment options were eliminated more than a decade ago, he said, in part because of the 24-day average an inmate spends at the jail.

“We didn’t have the people long enough to make an impact,” Joyce said. “We would start to get them, basically off their drug and working toward it, but they never completed, and when they got out they would turn back to using drugs.”

As the subcommittee discussed creating smaller working groups, Andrew Kiezulas of Young People in Recovery said his and other perspectives of recovering addicts should be kept in mind.

“I think for too long treatment has been from the top down,” Kiezulas said. “One of the things that was coolest about my recovery is I was asked ‘what do you want to do?’”

Poulos agreed, although he said programs do need some structure.

“I think the beauty of peer-to-peer recovery programs is it can be most effective when it comes from people who walk that path,” he said.

The next subcommittee meeting is scheduled for Nov. 13.

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

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.