BELFAST, Maine — On Tuesday, Belfast Police Chief Mike McFadden nearly got into an accident with a driver who was impaired by prescription drugs.
He also met with a “desperate” woman who begged the police to file a report that said her house had been broken into and her prescription drugs stolen, so that she would be able to refill the prescription. The problem? Her house hadn’t been broken into, the chief said. She was just seeking more prescription drugs.
That’s why when McFadden spoke later that night during a panel presentation at the Colonial Theatre about opiate abuse in Waldo County, his words had weight.
“They’re here. They’re in our community,” he said of people struggling with prescription drug addiction. “This is a community issue. We all need to address it. I wouldn’t be a police officer here if we couldn’t do something about it. It’s a social issue, that it’s accepted. We’ve got to change that. We’ve done it with drunk driving. We’ve done it with smoking. I think we can do it [with pills].”
The panelists spoke and answered questions after a standing-room-only showing of “ The Hungry Heart,” a recent documentary that looks at prescription drug abuse in St. Albans, Vermont — a community that has a lot in common with Belfast, according to Dr. David Loxterkamp of the Seaport Community Health Center in Belfast.
The health center will relocate this summer to a much larger site on the campus of athenahealth, he said. The move will allow the facility to expand its services to include physical therapy, pharmacy and basic laboratory services, and it also will provide more space for the health center’s full-to-bursting opioid addiction treatment program. Right now, more than 70 patients come to the facility to receive Suboxone treatment and to take part in group therapy sessions. There’s no more room to accept new patients who want to be in recovery.
Loxterkamp told the crowd of more than 100 people on Tuesday night that he had heard worries from other Belfast residents about the facility’s expansion and possible growth of its opioid treatment program.
“The concerns are that such a facility would invite a lot of riffraff to our community,” he said. “What I said to them was that we are family doctors responding to the flood of patients coming into our waiting room and wanting help.”
Mary Beth Leone, a licensed clinical social worker who also works at Seaport Community Health Center, said that she has learned distressing information about how the community’s young people are using opiates.
“We became aware that high school students in the Belfast area were snorting heroin,” she said. “This is not a hidden epidemic.”
The documentary followed the struggles of many young people in St. Albans who are trying to get off opiates. They were spending many thousands of dollars a week on illicitly obtained pills, but the true cost of their addictions was much higher and included their relationships, their dreams of a healthy future and in some cases even their lives.
Panelist Bob Shaw of Belfast said he abused medically prescribed opiates for nearly five years, but has been substance-free for a year and a half after undergoing Suboxone treatment. He spoke about the pervasive American culture of using drugs and alcohol.
“They’ve become almost a rite of passage to our young people,” he said.
Roy Curtis of the Maine Department of Corrections had some words of advice for concerned parents, urging them to listen to their children, model healthy behaviors and seek resources for help.
“Ask them where they are. Who they’re with,” he said. “Be involved and engaged in your child’s life.”
Members of the audience asked about the true extent of the problem in Waldo County, and what some possible solutions might be. A high school student asked if there are any resources available in the school for students who might need help. A woman who said she has been sober for 20 years asked if people in recovery can help mentor those seeking help.
“We cannot just hide in church basements,” she said.
Loxterkamp said that in order to help solve the epidemic, the community must be “very accepting” and see that people in opiate addiction recovery are part of the community, too.
“It takes all of us,” he said.
For those who might want to be part of a bigger conversation about opiate addiction, there will be a meeting of the Waldo County Community Anti-Drug Coalition at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 22, at the RSU 20 Superintendent’s Office on Lion’s Way in Belfast.