ELLSWORTH — There was no dazzling light at the end of the tunnel for the 70-plus concerned citizens who participated in Monday night’s opioid forum. But they came away with a better idea of the dimensions of the tunnel.
The forum at Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School, sponsored by Healthy Acadia and The Ellsworth American, featured drug intervention professionals, a psychiatrist, a recovering heroin addict and the county sheriff.
Together they presented a daunting picture:
- A total of 273 opioid and heroin overdose deaths in 2015 — up 31 percent from the year before. Two overdose deaths in the Machias area last weekend.
- Prescription drug misuse among 12th-graders in Hancock County at almost twice the state average; 6 percent of the county’s high school seniors have tried heroin once in their lives — twice the state average.
- Little availability this side of Portland of Suboxone, which has been found effective, in some cases, for those who cannot go cold turkey.
- Police and corrections officers having little experience with individuals addicted to opiates. “We’re never, ever, going to arrest our way out of the problem,” Sheriff Scott Kane said.
Kip Young, a drug intervention counselor in Ellsworth, said it doesn’t help to stigmatize a person who is addicted to opioids. Some 20 percent of his clients, Young said, became addicted as a result of following the advice of the doctor who prescribed an opioid pain reliever. The stigmatizing — “junkie,” “drug addict” — continues, he said, though the addicted individuals should be regarded as people with an illness. “If we treated cancer patients the way we treat the addicted, not many would survive,” Young said.
Members of the audience presented a range of views. A teacher noted that marijuana, once universally illegal, is now legally available by prescription. That sends a confusing message to the young, she said.
Ralph Robertson of Orrington, whose church operates faith-based programs for men and women in addiction, noted the prevalence of Ritalin use among schoolchildren. Instead of being self-reliant in the face of difficulty, he said, we have become drug-reliant. “We reap what we sow,” he said.
Barbara Royal, executive director of the Open Door recovery, treatment center in Ellsworth, said more hospital-based detox programs are needed. This is long-term treatment and it is costly, she said. But the results are better. “When people are released, they know what recovery looks like,” she said.
Kane praised Royal for her work. A sheriff’s deputy stepped up to endorse education and involvement.
“Our children are under attack,” he said. “Parents are unarmed in that war.”
Monday’s forum was facilitated by the Maine Opioid Collaborative. The points raised will be shared with local, state and federal authorities to help shape policy and funding priorities in the battle against opiate addiction.