PORTLAND, Maine — People around the state are talking about drug abuse and the increasing number who have died from drug overdoses.

Organizers of a vigil for overdose victims said Monday night it has created a different setting for the annual vigil that began one year ago.

“The conversation has changed a lot since last year,” said Zoe Odlin-Platz, a member of the volunteer-based I AM HERE Outreach Team, which focuses on overdose prevention and community education.

Brittney Dunham, another organizer with the group, said the first year of the event was a “rallying cry” to promote greater attention to the issue, increase access to the overdose treatment drug Narcan, and boost other treatment options.

“This year,” she said, “it’s much more of a somber mood.”

Deaths from overdose in Maine increased during the first half of the year. First responders have attributed a spike in heroin-related overdoses to the dangerous addition of the pain medication fentanyl to drugs being sold here.

In addition to changing the tone, a new level of attention boosted turnout this year, organizers said.

While deaths are on the rise, the statistics don’t include an untold number of cases where family members or friends administer Narcan to bring a loved one back from the brink of death, according to Hilary Eslinger, another member of I AM HERE.

Eslinger said that kind of community support has cropped up in the absence of other treatment options for overdoses, an issue she said has gotten attention partly because it affects a broad group of people in different socioeconomic classes.

“The community that this bridges has been doing this for a long time,” Eslinger said, referring to unreported treatment and care.

First responders do have Narcan available to administer and have recently called on local and state officials to provide funding for more treatment options, including a pilot program in Portland that would divert people from jail to special addiction recovery programs.

Dunham said that people who are treated with Narcan often have nowhere to turn to after being released from the hospital and they, as a result, are susceptible to start using drugs again.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who spoke before vigil attendees marched a course passing the city’s Oxford and Preble Street homeless shelters and read names of overdose victims, said a coalition of mayors around the state recently submitted a proposal for a pilot program to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

City officials announced that effort earlier this month, after a weekend when first responders in Portland handled 14 overdose calls in a 24-hour period.

Officials said that disposed needles in public parks and other public spaces have become a more frequent problem and urged residents to call the public dispatch service at 874-8493 rather than attempting to handle them.

Roger Goodoak, who runs the Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance out of a van traveling the city every night, said that he has seen a rise in discarded needles. In his work, he tries to “put a face on homelessness” and he hopes the same will happen with addiction, he said.

“This should be a concern of every citizen in Portland,” Goodoak said.

The pilot program proposed for Portland would start focused on one yet unspecified neighborhood, needing an estimated $100,000 to $200,000 to model a drug treatment diversion program created in Seattle called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD.

Brennan said Monday that other communities in the state have started to look elsewhere for treatment ideas, including a program in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that provides treatment to people who turn in their drug paraphernalia or drugs.

“I think it’s good that people are starting to look at alternatives and trying treatment,” Brennan said.

Both Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Sen. Angus King recently held forums on the issue, discussing approaches to drug treatment and law enforcement’s need to fight the supply side of the problem.

Brennan, who is up for re-election in November, said his experience as a social worker showed him that rehabilitation from addiction is possible and that treatment programs can work.

David Zisk, who spoke during the vigil, said he battled addiction to heroin over the course of 10 years and recovered, but said it wasn’t because he tried harder than others or found a secret to recovery. He called for more treatment options and support.

“Wendell Berry wrote: ‘We need drugs, apparently, because we have lost each other,’” Zisk said.

Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.