BREWER, Maine — Marie Allen likely never planned to become an anti-drug crusader, but she felt compelled to do so after losing her daughter, Erin, to a heroin overdose.
Allen was in Brewer on Wednesday to share her experience and advice as part of the Brewer Police Department’s “Heroin: Stop the Demand” presentation delivered to Brewer’s middle and high school students during that day and to an estimated 250 people from the larger community that evening.
She said Wednesday she has been traveling around the country with the New Castle County Police and Paramedics Heroin Alert Team, out of Delaware, in the hope others might avoid the heartbreak she and her family endured as they watched Erin’s descent into the world of heroin addiction.
“I think people, especially young people, deserve to hear the truth about drugs and alcohol can affect their lives,” she said.
Maine Attorney General Janet Mills issued a report in August warning that the number of overdoses from heroin and fentanyl in Maine are on the rise, while the overall number of drug overdose deaths is on track to be similar to 2014, which was the worst year on record.
During Wednesday’s presentation, Allen and fellow team member Officer Perry Sorrels drove that point home with statistic after statistic and slide after slide of the effects that the grip of heroin and other drugs, including the much more powerful fentanyl, have on people young and old and from all walks of life.
Many of the images were shocking: people with scars and sores from injecting drugs. The bodies of young people who died with needles still in their arms or while reaching for a phone to get help. People whose identities changed from their names to the numbers printed on their toes tags.
Arguably one of the hardest-hitting images was the last Allen saw of her daughter: a picture showing Erin’s pale face on a computer screen at the coroner’s office her daughter was taken to for an autopsy.
“It was the most impersonal experience I’d ever had,” she said, her voice breaking. The image hit the audience in the collective gut. Many shed tears, and the auditorium went silent.
Allen said Erin’s struggle with addiction began when she was 15. At first it was alcohol and then marijuana. After spending three years in and out of rehab, Erin was court-ordered to enter a Maryland rehabilitation program for 90 days because of an assault charge. She stayed clean for a year and a half, Allen said.
“It seemed like she had finally gotten her life together,” Allen recalled. Erin got a job, bought a car and enrolled in community college. That all changed, however, when Erin was offered heroin during an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting, and her downward spiral accelerated.
“For whatever reason, Erin tried it,” Allen said. “She told me later that she was addicted after the first time.”
At first, Erin snorted the drug. Shortly after, she began injecting it.
Over the next two years, Erin developed an up to $250 per day heroin habit that resulted in her selling all her belongings, then stealing from family and friends, and then selling the drug herself. Shortly before her death, Erin was so overcome by drug cravings that she stole her mother’s car from work and sold it for $200. The final straw for Erin happened when she went to a medical facility for bloodwork and the needle used to draw blood triggered her cravings anew, causing her to run away from help for the first and last time.
Allen urged parents to be involved in their children’s lives — to not be afraid to be nosy or search their bedrooms or backpacks if they suspect drug use — because it could save a life.
The Brewer Police Department sponsored Allen’s visit to Brewer as part of the regional effort to stop the demand for illegal drugs.
As Capt. Chris Martin sees it, Maine has made headway on the law enforcement front, but it has done little to get at the root of the problem — demand for heroin and other opiate-based drugs. A key way to reduce that demand is through increased access to treatment and recovery services for those addicted.
“We have to do something about that so people have a way out of this,” he said. “Revolving in and out of jail is not an answer.”