ROCKLAND, Maine — The extent of the heroin problem in the midcoast area was highlighted by both the turnout and heartfelt stories told Thursday night at a community forum.
About 130 people packed Rockland City Hall as participants discussed the drug problem and offered a wide range of possible solutions.
“The problem is like an octopus,” said Rockland mental health professional Greg Marley, saying that the tentacles of drug abuse stretch out in many directions.
Dr. Ira Mandel, a physician at Pen Bay Medical Center, said that only three doctors have agreed to treat addicted patients with drug replacement therapies. More leadership is needed from physicians, he said.
Mandel hauled out a poster which read “Physicians” on one side and “Please help us” on the other. He said that without enough doctors willing to treat people with opiate addictions, the problem would not be addressed.
He said many physicians are salaried employees of Pen Bay who are busy and have a negative opinion about how drug replacement treatment for addicts can be successful. He urged the public to demand more from the hospital to have more doctors offer drug treatment.
“Pen Bay is the 1,000-pound gorilla,” he said.
Rockland Mayor Louise MacLellan-Ruf spoke about her brother’s death from a drug overdose and how she initially was too embarrassed to discuss with people how he died. She stressed, however, that there is nothing to be embarrassed about, as addiction is a disease of the brain.
“The stigma is one thing we can change,” she said.
James Pease, regional supervisor for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, said that nearly all Maine people who are caught trafficking in drugs are also addicts.
“They are not trying to get rich; they are trying to get through another day,” Pease said.
The drug enforcement special agent said that treatment alone won’t work without enforcement. He said some people are not interested in getting treatment and won’t participate until they are in the court system and are placed on probation where someone can monitor them.
Jane Newcomb, who has organized support programs for families that have someone with a drug problem, said a drug court is needed in Knox County as well as extended probation periods to help keep people in treatment. She also urged rejection of a referendum to legalize recreational marijuana, arguing that opiate addicts start with marijuana use.
The Rev. Peter Jenks of Thomaston said the drug crisis is not a new problem. He said a health care survey done throughout Knox County 20 years ago cited drugs as one of the top issues.
Henry Lunn, an educator and school counselor for 50 years, agreed. He said the community needs to examine why people are turning to drugs. He added that each person has a responsibility to be a good neighbor and try to help others.
Rep. Joan Welsh, D-Rockport, said more money is needed for treatment, but admitted that can be difficult in times of tight budgets.
A woman who identified herself as a nurse at Pen Bay Women’s Health said she is seeing a lot of mothers who are addicted and are giving birth to babies who are born with addictions. She said she would love any help from physicians.
Anthony Raye of Rockland said a variety of options need to be available for people with addictions like himself.
“You can’t pigeonhole addicts,” Raye said.
Richard Catalano, a pastor, questioned the benefit of drug replacement treatment, citing the strengths of long-term rehabilitation including with spiritual counseling.
Information from the Thursday forum — one of several held around the state — will be shared with the Maine Opiate Collaborative, which was created by U.S. Attorney for Maine Thomas Delahanty in an effort to identify and address the causes of opiate abuse and to propose solutions, according to the organization’s website.