About 130 people packed into the Rockland City Council Chamber on February 4 for a forum on opiate addiction. Public health advocates, medical professionals, members of law enforcement, people with addictions and family members provided a diverse range of perspectives and ideas about how to deal with the public health crisis of addiction in the region. The two-hour summit was part of a statewide tour by the Maine Opiate Collaborative to gather input to inform public policy.
Rockland Mayor Louise MacLellan-Ruf, who is a certified addiction specialist, recalled the death of her brother from a heroin overdose and how she had felt ashamed to talk about it.
“We can’t just turn a blind eye,” said MacLellan-Ruf. “The stigma is one of the biggest things that can be overcome and part of that is completely understanding and grasping that this is a brain disease, that addiction isn’t loss of will, isn’t a lack of character. It’s something that every one of us has the opportunity to become. We can all become addicts.”
Faith Healing vs. Medical Science
While some medical professionals talked about a need for more local doctors to prescribe the opiate replacement drug Suboxone, some members of the public expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of medication-assisted treatment. Randy Bouchard, who is the vice president of Eureka Counseling in Rockland, said he disagreed with Gov. Paul LePage’s law enforcement approach to stopping the drug epidemic, but also disagreed with medication-assisted treatment.
“There is another way,” said Bouchard. “We agree with an abstinence-based program. We have seen it work, it does work.”
Rev. Richard Catalano, who serves as a chaplain at the Knox County Jail, criticized government spending on rehabilitation and medication-assisted treatment and said money would better be spent on the faith-based recovery center Teen Challenge, which treats drug and alcohol addiction with “the power of Jesus Christ.”
“The cost of jail in Knox County is running about $125 per day,” said Catalano. “I can get someone in rehab at a much better bang for your buck … 30 day, 60 day [rehab] programs, you might as well light the money on fire.”
But Rockland resident Anthony Raye, who identified himself as an addict, said there need to be multiple options for people seeking treatment and recovery.
“Yes, methadone might not work for somebody, but if we can save one guy’s life from getting off of drugs with methadone, it’s worth it,” said Raye. “Suboxone might not work for somebody else. Maybe cold turkey is the way to go. I don’t know. But one thing I can tell you is that with all of the options out there, that’s where we’ll be successful. You can’t pigeonhole an addict. I’m not like you or anybody else. The reason I use is not the same reason you use. That’s why we have to make things available.”
Differing Law Enforcement Perspectives
In response to concerns about prescription opiate-replacement drugs like Suboxone being sold on the street and used recreationally, Rockland Police Sergeant Don Finnegan said that if people take them correctly, they can be effective and won’t get people high. He said Knox County should have a drug court, which provides alternatives to incarceration, like mandatory drug treatment.
“We know that for the overwhelming majority of addicts, who are committing no other crime besides possession or minor property crimes, if you wipe out their addiction, they’re completely wonderful people and useful members of society,” said Finnegan. “Whatever we can do to promote that is what we need to do. Drug courts are a good step.”
Finnegan said his department is also discussing the possibility of adopting a program similar to Scarborough’s “Operation H.O.P.E.,” which helps people with addictions seeking help to get into treatment programs without fear of arrest. He told the story of a man who crashed his vehicle on drugs and begged for help with his addiction.
“He just broke down and started crying and just couldn’t move forward,” said Finnegan. “He just said, ‘I want to get help. I want to get off this.’ We drove him up to Pen Bay and got him checked into the PARC Unit. If you want help, we’ll get you the help or we’ll try.”
Finnegan said the biggest barrier to adopting a program based on the H.O.P.E. model is funding. A recent bill signed into law dedicates a small amount of money to programs like Operation H.O.P.E., but Rep. Joan Welsh (D-Rockport) said more tax revenue is needed to pay for drug treatment and prevention programs.
Maine Drug Enforcement Agent James Pease said drug treatment is part of the answer, but that some people don’t want treatment, so the state should make it a felony again to possess any amount of drugs.
“The concept behind that, whether you agree with it or not, is to get them on probation,” said Pease. “Probation can help mandate [treatment].”
Jane Newcomb of the support group Nar-Anon denounced the citizen referendum to legalize recreational marijuana.
“That needs to stop,” said Newcomb. “Every drug addict who I talk to says that is just how they all started. Drug addicts are against that so why can’t we be?”
But others said criminalizing drugs is not the answer. Substance abuse counselor Nick Ruf called the War on Drugs an “expensive failure” that has only made drugs cheaper, more pure and more available than ever.
“If it’s a brain disease, then what is law enforcement doing in it?” said Ruf. “If it’s a brain disease, it should be handled by schools, by the medical profession and by professionals. Law enforcement was not created to keep people from harming themselves. It was created to keep people from harming each other.”
Other Suggested Solutions
Rockland acupuncturist Abi Morrison argued that acupuncture can help people stay clean, while a Rockland school nurse said drug prevention programs in schools are the key. A mother of two children complained that there isn’t enough for young people to do in Rockland, which makes them vulnerable to drug dealers.
Ross Hicks of the Harm Reduction Alliance of Maine, who is also recovering from addiction, called for people to stop using the word “addict” and instead refer to them as “people in long-term recovery for the treatable, chronic medical condition of substance-use disorder.”
“If you want to address stigma, look at the way we talk about things,” said Hicks.
Kenney Miller of the Health Equity Alliance said more funding is needed for syringe exchange programs to help reduce preventable diseases like HIV and hepatitis C. “It’s been proven effective in doing this for well over three decades with no impact on crime or increases in drug use,” said Miller.
Retired school counselor Hank Lunn said more community outreach is needed to address the addiction epidemic.
“Let’s find out what’s going on in our communities and what’s going on with our people that say, ‘I am sick and tired of this and I need some help,’” said Lunn. “But we’ve got to be neighbors. We’ve got to say, ‘yes, I will help you. I will do this. I understand that you have a problem.’”
Matt Braun, who identified himself as a person in long-term recovery, said many people in recovery are discriminated against in getting housing and jobs because they have criminal records, which harms their success in recovery.
“Don’t discriminate against me,” said Braun. “Don’t discriminate against my friends, our families, my neighbors, because if you shun us, we’re not going to make it.”
Others expressed frustration with family members who have been through treatment several times, but have not been able to overcome the illness.
“None of what you guys are doing right now works,” complained a woman to the panel.
“If everything we were doing was working,” replied Finnegan, “We wouldn’t be here.”