Fighting the opioid epidemic, one community at a time

The opioid epidemic in Maine represents nothing less than a public health crisis. Each week five Mainers die of overdoses and twenty babies are born in withdrawal. I know I am not alone when I say that I find these numbers intolerable.

Earlier this year, the Legislature acted swiftly and boldly, passing laws that are having a real impact. But I am proud to have supported these bills, and I am pleased that the both houses acted in a bipartisan way to get this done. But voting for legislation is not enough.

In an effort to do more, I am going into communities and engaging with the people who are rolling up their sleeves and handling this crisis on the front lines.  I’ve been listening to residents who have been directly affected by painkiller addiction and the doctors, therapists and law enforcement officers who see the wreckage caused by addiction every day.  And I am learning a lot.

In the past three weeks I have heard from all those stakeholders at meetings in Camden, Rockland, Cushing, Union and St. George.   These meetings were well-attended and provided real insight on how we can tackle this problem on a local level.

Knox County Recovery Center is an excellent example of a facility that uses a progressive approach in addressing addiction.  For instance, the Center is in the process of training recovery coaches, people who have experience with alcohol or drug addiction and recovery, in order to help others find a way out.

The Center also hosts forums in order to provide support and encouragement for those affected.  “Drop-in” meetings are held for those in different stages of addiction, and “Friends and Family” meetings are held for those people who are close to the victims to share their experiences and draw strength from others.

Law enforcement plays a key role in a balanced approach to addressing this crisis. However, as one police officer told me, we can’t arrest our way out of this problem. As part of the Sequential Intercept Model, the Center will divert youth and young adults who would otherwise have been put through the criminal justice system and provide support instead of reprimand.  They will work with the Rockland Career Center to assist in vocational training and job placement and help provide access to safe and sober housing along the way.

All towns and cities in Knox County are different, and I realize that what works in Rockland might not work in Union or Tenants Harbor.  And there is always more work to be done; for example, a truly comprehensive policy would include holding the pharmaceutical industry accountable, as it has profited for years by downplaying the addictiveness of narcotic painkillers. But by finding what works for individual communities,  we can start to turn the grim statistics around and get in front of this issue.

The opioid crisis hurts communities like ours because addiction to painkillers could happen to absolutely anyone. This is not a problem that ‘other people’ have; people from all walks of life in mid-coast Maine are affected, and fixing the problem requires involvement from the whole community. I look forward to talking with more folks in the midcoast and learning more about how we can put this epidemic behind us for good.

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