Maine has a growing drug abuse problem. Heroin, methadone and OxyContin have become deeply rooted in our communities. The drugs one hears about may change, but they all are dangerous, they cause a variety of social ills, and they inflict pain and suffering on users and their families. We must address this problem because real people and real communities are at risk.
We have not acknowledged our society’s substance abuse problems. Instead, we have invested energy in finding convenient scapegoats, including individuals with chronic drug problems. We focus on the drug itself or the “user” when a new report arrives or when something “bad” happens in our backyards.
If we focus our attention on the big picture of struggling kids who seek easy meaning and simple solutions to life’s problems by abusing substances, we could push back the darkness of drug abuse and keep Maine’s problem from getting worse.
We are susceptible to the issues most states and communities face, and the number of people who use and abuse various substances in this state is alarming. Opiates are establishing a firm foothold here, and this reality can waken us to the problems and inspire us to initiate a comprehensive, systematic approach to drug abuse prevention.
Maine’s most recent drug abuse survey notes that 11 percent of students in grades six through 12 have used prescription drugs for purposes other than their intended use, and nearly 20 percent of students in grades 11 and 12 have misused prescription drugs, and Maine has the highest treatment admission rate for opiate addiction in the country.
What can we do?
A focus on the factors that drive demand for drugs and an acknowledgement that drug problems exist will lead to a comprehensive community response.
Because these issues scare us, we might ignore them or throw up our hands, but this approach won’t change anything for the better, and the human and social costs will only increase. Instead, we can change the consequences users and their families endure, while preventing young people from taking up drug use, through a collective commitment to action. Each of us can share the burden and create momentum for continued progress through a four-step process:
Establish community coalitions to enact community standards against abuse of all drugs, while working to eliminate risk factors for substance abuse, including the lack of engaging alternatives to substance abuse in our towns and cities. This could be as simple as establishing a teen center or opening a gym for student recreation. These coalitions can work toward creating a communitywide scaffold that pushes back conditions that support drug abuse. They work best when parents, kids, school officials, police, clergy, care providers and business leaders join forces to comprehensively address these issues.
Support increased police efforts to curb alcohol abuse and interdict illegal drugs. State and municipal authorities need more resources for this effort. Supported law enforcement work will send the message that drugs of abuse are not welcome, drug dealing will not be tolerated, and we will never cede our towns and cities to drugs.
Encourage more involvement in the lives of our children by getting involved at school and engaging in community forums aimed at creating caring communities where kids can grow into capable and competent young people. Parenting is difficult, and it helps to know that a team is on your side as you work through the realities of adolescence.
Support a full-scale prevention effort in this state. Our state office of substance abuse needs more prevention funding and local efforts do too. This investment would yield a return in terms of better-lived lives, fewer substance abuse problems and less crime.
This is a frightening problem, but I believe in my heart that we can have a huge effect on how our children live and how our communities evolve. It takes a willingness to see the whole picture and to keep working even when the task seems too big.
As Mainers, we are strong enough and smart enough to make this a place where life really is the way it should be. It will take work and time and a belief in the adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Our actions, and we must act, are important; our kids’ lives depend on it.
Robert Dana is the vice president for student affairs and dean of students at the University of Maine. He also serves on the board of directors for Northeast Occupational Exchange and the Bangor Public Health Advisory Board.