BANGOR, Maine — More than 400 people from all walks of life gathered at the Cross Insurance Center on Wednesday for a brainstorming session about a problem that has been claiming a rapidly growing number of Maine lives: opiate addiction.
The One Life Project was inspired by Garrett Brown, a young man from the state’s capital, who let Erin Rhoda, editor of Bangor Daily News’ Maine Focus, chronicle his life for 2½ years. He died in November 2015 after overdosing on heroin.
Brown’s absence was felt during Wednesday’s session. His mother, Traci Brown, was on hand but chose not to speak.
“If there’s one person who should be standing in front of you tonight, it’s Garrett Brown,” Rhoda said. “He was one of the 272 people who died last year by overdosing on drugs. Two hundred and seventy-two is a record number of overdose deaths, nearly double the number of people killed in car crashes each year.”
Rhoda said that Brown told her not long before he died that he wanted to let the public see his struggles because, as he said:
“If this changes one kid’s life, saves one kid from being in jail, saves his family the pain of seeing him go through it, saves one kid from overdosing and dying, then all that I’ve done hasn’t been in vain.”
“If there’s one thing we know, it’s that each person here has ideas that can help save a life, so think of what we could all do together,” she said.
Among those who participated was U.S. Sen. Angus King, who, along with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, was so moved by Rhoda’s story about Brown that they shared it on the Senate floor.
“After finishing the story, I found it hard to talk and the reason is that the problem we’re all here to talk about tonight is easily translatable as a statistic,” he said. “ … And it’s so easy to just go from statistics, to get stuck in the numbers, and forget that we’re talking about people. Real people. … To say this is an epidemic is an understatement.
While he said there is no single solution and that solutions cost money, the situation isn’t hopeless. To make the point, he noted that the Chinese character for “crisis” is a combination of two other words — “danger” and “opportunity.”
For U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who also participated, the problem of addiction is personal. A family member has struggled with it.
“I had a family member who was lost as a result of addiction,” he said. “I get it. I know what it’s like to plead with [emergency room] physicians, social workers, law enforcement — plead with them to help,” often with embarrassment and to no avail.
He urged others affected by addiction to intervene early and not give up. He admitted that wasn’t easy.
“Our family fumbled around this, we did the best that we could, but today we know more about addiction. We know more about treating addiction and we need to hold our loved ones accountable to being healthy once they have left detox,” he said.
“This is good to do [but] sometimes we love them so much that we don’t want them to have any more pain, but a great way to do that is to help them be healthy themselves and there are a lot of things we can do at the federal level, the state level and the local level to make that happen,” he said.
Emily Cain, who is running for Poliquin’s seat in November, also participated.
“Tonight I sat with the mother of an addict and I sat with the brother of an addict who overdosed about two years ago and their stories really show both the power of things we are already doing and are working.
“We need to seek out more of those stories because I think that’s really where we find the solutions,” she said, adding that she came away with hope.
Sen. Geoff Gratwick, who is a doctor, said the group at his table came up with three ideas for curbing addiction, namely expand MaineCare — which drew applause from the crowd — as well as impose stricter limits on the prescription of narcotics and, the most difficult, get a better understanding of addiction.
From his perspective as a physician, Gratwick pointed out that medical professionals prescribe narcotics as a way to help patients who are in pain.
“As it turns out, narcotics are really wonderful but on the other hand, they are certainly a double-edged sword [because] narcotics can be devastating. They can kill you.”
The questions that participants were asked to brainstorm over were:
The responses will be shared at a later time.
Despite the public attention brought to the addiction problem faced by Maine and the rest of the nation, the number of those affected continues to be high.
Last year, Maine set another grim record for drug overdose deaths. Attorney General Janet Mills said in March.
In 2015, 272 people died in Maine as the result of overdosing — a 31 percent jump over 2014, which saw a record 208 overdose deaths, Mills said.
Men accounted for two-thirds of last year’s overdose deaths, Mills said. The ages of those who died ranged from 18 to 89, though most deaths were of those under the age of 60, state statistics indicated. The average age of those who overdosed was 42, or one year younger that the average age of a Maine resident.
While all counties recorded at least one overdose death, about 78 percent of them occurred in Maine’s five most populous counties, which account for 65 percent of the state’s population.
Cumberland County had 86 overdose deaths, or 32 percent of the statewide total. The city of Portland recorded 46 deaths, followed by Lewiston with 15 deaths and Bangor with 13 deaths.