PARIS — As Michelle Roberts headed over to U.S. Sen. Angus King’s opioid and heroin roundtable at the Paris Town Office Monday, she counted 38 people she knew locally – outside of her family – who were addicted to heroin.
“You’re kidding?” King asked her incredulously.
“No, I’m not,” Roberts replied. “This is a huge problem.”
Addiction in Oxford Hills and beyond was important enough for the Greenwood resident to spend her 23rd birthday sharing her experiences with the senator and the roughly 15 others in attendance at the Monday, March 28 event.
This is the fourth roundtable King, an Independent, has held across the state to speak with people to try and stymie the issue that affects people from all walks of life.
“I consider this problem the most serious disaster to strike Maine in my adult life. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “It’s happened relatively fast and it’s still growing.”
Robert shared she suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and had a six-month period where she was in so much pain, she couldn’t walk and struggled to get out of bed.
“My doctor suggested I take pain medication because my quality of life was zip. I never abused my medication,” she said, adding after about six months, she felt good and decided to stop taking her medication. “I was so sick. [I thought] ‘Wow, what is wrong with me?’ I was in withdrawls. I was terrified.”
King asked her if she was aware of the potential of getting addicted to her pain medicine.
“I was naive. I had no idea that is was synthetic heroin, basically,” she said. “The pain medication helped the pain but it wasn’t worth it for everything I had to go through.”
Roberts has since got herself into counseling and is using Suboxone to ween her from her dependence on opioids. Everyone in attendance agreed there’s not enough treatment for the number of people battling addiction to such substances.
Dr. Lisa Miller of Norway noted there’s only two doctors who practice medicated assisted treatment, such as Suboxone, in the area, and both aren’t taking any more patients currently. She acknowledged that some of the change needs to start in the medical profession.
“How do we changed the culture on how we practice medicine?” Miller asked. “It is something my practice is working very hard on.”
“For somebody that has a problem – who’s addicted to get high off their medication – they need more than a strip of Suboxone,” Roberts said. “They’re going to be addicted to the process of doing it.”
King commented that heroin is cheaper than prescription drugs.
“I think that’s how we transitioned to more heroin. Problems started with prescription medications. It was prescribed too regularly or too much of a quantity at a time,” Rumford Police Chief Stacy Carter said. “[Heroin has] come into the Rumford area in car and truckloads. … The problem is we’re seeing just as much fentanyl.”
Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate that is stronger than morphine and more deadly. It is how Oxford County Patrol Sgt. Matt Baker’s 23-year-old daughter died – from a fentanyl-laced heroin dose about a year ago. He said she started out abusing Ritalin and Adderall (prescribed for attention deficit disorder) and it escalated from there.
“Once these kids get introduced to that, they learn that medication supposedly solves all problems,” he said.
King asked the group what could they do, if it was as simple as informing kids of the dangers of addiction in health class. Roberts said doing side-by-side comparisons of people when they start using and a later photo where they look like they’ve aged 10 years.
“That thought scares the hell out of me,” she said. “I don’t know why it wouldn’t anyone else.”
King noted years ago the method was to scare children into not taking drugs, though he’s been told this method isn’t effective.
“I never abused my medication, I became just as addicted as the person putting a needle in their arm,” Roberts reiterated. She noted it was $150 for her initial office visit to get started on Suboxone, $200 for each urine analysis and another $200 for her prescription.
One woman, who wished not to be named to protect her family, said her son’s 28-day treatment in Florida cost $40,000.
“It sounds like the treatment is more expensive than the drugs,” he said.
Numerous people agreed with his sentiment and responded “absolutely.”
“Is stricter law enforcement the answer?” King asked.
“Maybe for traffickers, but not for the users,” Paris Interim Police Chief Jeff Lange said. “The War on Drugs didn’t work for 40 years. Something else needs to be changed.”
Lange spearheaded the Western Maine Addiction Task Force to battle the growing heroin problem in Oxford County and since that time, Project SaveME has grown as an alternate treatment program for users. He said when he started the taskforce, he was responding to Portland’s 14 overdoses in 24 hours last year.
“There is no way we have enough resources to handle something like that,” Lange said, adding every police force in the county now participates in Project SaveME. “What we need is a recovery center where people who have addiction can go to have peer-to-peer support. We don’t have that here. I don’t think there is a small rural community that has that in this state.”
Carter implored King to return to Washington, D.C., and “push for appropriations for the state of Maine for treatment and programs.”
King noted a bill dealing with addiction treatment was recently passed in Congress, but wasn’t fully funded. He promised to work through it.
“I am in the market for ideas,” he told the group. “The most valuable thing you can supply is ideas and you can deliver them from the front lines.”