MACHIAS, Maine — Those who weren’t there spoke volumes Friday night at a community forum in Machias on illicit drug use and overdose deaths.
Four rows of largely empty wooden chairs greeted Tim Shaw, a substance abuse prevention specialist with the Bangor Region Overdose Prevention Project. A former addict, Shaw has spent seven years working for the Bangor Health and Wellness agency to educate the public about the dangers of drug abuse through presentations and his street presence in Hancock, Penobscot and Washington counties.
The forum held at the Rose M. Gaffney Elementary School attracted eight people. Sponsored by Washington County: One Community, the event was staged in association with National Drug Facts Week. A recent similar event in Lubec attracted about 35 people.
Dustin Foss, the agency’s youth and education coordinator, said Saturday she is “not at all discouraged” by the low turnout.
“The best community work is not done with huge turnouts and glaring spotlights,” Foss said. “It’s done little by little with conversations like we had last night. Illicit drug use and abuse is a problem everywhere, and it’s a difficult topic everywhere. There are a myriad of reasons [why] people can’t come to community events, and I don’t believe that any of them are due to a lack of caring and concern.”
Shaw used a PowerPoint presentation to provide those who did attend with a statistical analysis of drug use trends in Maine. His running commentary on almost every chart and graph he presented usually included the recurring phrase “It’s scary.”
“It’s here, and it’s not going to go away,” Shaw said of drug abuse and the increasing number of overdose hospitalizations and deaths in Washington County and throughout Maine. “It’s the elephant in the room, and people need to talk about it. … It’s not going to get better; it’s going to get worse, and the community needs to just stop ignoring it.”
Many of the statistics Friday showed drug use and abuse trends through 2009. More recent data, Shaw said, is hard to come by, and he expects the figures that are reported by coroners, hospitals and emergency medical technicians are underreported. In Maine, he pointed out, there are more deaths due to drug overdose than highway accidents.
Although heroin is making a comeback in Bangor and throughout Maine, Shaw said, abuse of prescription drugs and overdoses and deaths from those drugs, including methadone and opiate-based painkillers such as Hydrocodone and Oxycodone, account for most drug overdoses and overdose deaths statewide. In 2007, abuse of pharmaceuticals became the leading cause of admission to drug treatment centers, a trend that has continued, he said.
“The numbers show that 86 percent of fatal overdoses [in Maine] involved pharmaceuticals, and 30 percent of those involved methadone,” Shaw said. “In Maine the increases in drug deaths began in 1998, surged in 2002 and has stayed high.”
Statistics also show that in 2011 there were 23 newborns diagnosed in Machias as facing opiate withdrawal and other effects of their mothers’ prescription drug abuse. By comparison, there were 139 such newborns diagnosed in Bangor.
Among the few attendees at the forum was Shannon Micklus, who coordinates the Project REACH program for seventh- and eighth-graders at the Rose M. Gaffney Elementary School. That program is designed to boost students’ self-esteem and spark early interest in careers. She was accompanied by two students.
“It’s important that [students] are aware of this stuff,” Micklus said of the array of illicit drugs that are becoming accessible to tweens and young teenagers. “I believe that education is our most powerful weapon. If each child knows about what a drug can do to them, they’ll be less likely to do it.”
Micklus said students concerned about the problem are developing an in-house program that will showcase the dangers of dabbling in drugs.
After his 45-minute presentation, Shaw said he, like Foss, was not discouraged by the low turnout at Friday’s forum.
“I used to find it discouraging,” he admits. “But, the next time I come back, there may be more [who attend] because they heard about this event. I find that having this conversation with even a small group like this is useful.”