BANGOR, Maine — U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said if drug addiction was treated like a new form of cancer that was killing more than 200 Mainers yearly — referencing those who died in drug overdose deaths in 2014 and 2015 — then “we would find a solution.”
“That’s an average of one every weekday,” King said Friday at an opioid roundtable discussion held at the Hope House Health and Living Center in Bangor. “In New Hampshire, it’s one every day.”
“I’ve never seen anything this serious in Maine,” said King, who with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, earlier this week introduced the Cradle Act, bipartisan legislation to improve care for babies born exposed to opioids during pregnancy.
King received firsthand information at the roundtable from two Bangor doctors who deal with drug addiction on a daily basis, as well as a former heroin user from Otis who is currently taking Suboxone, and others involved in the fight against drug addiction.
At the start of the gathering, King announced that he is going to introduce legislation to update a 50-year-old federal law that created a 16-bed limit at many drug treatment and recovery facilities.
“Arbitrary limits enacted into law years ago are preventing people from getting the help they need,” King said. “That just doesn’t make sense.”
King is also a co-sponsor of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2015, a bipartisan bill currently being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee that would encourage states and local communities to pursue an array of proven strategies to combat addiction. He has also introduced an emergency supplemental funding bill with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, that would provide $600 million in supplemental funding to address the heroin and opioid epidemic through programs at the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Dr. Noah Nesin, chief medical officer of Penobscot Community Health Care, and Trip Gardner, chief psychiatric officer, told King several things that surprised him, including that Maine and other rural states were “targeted” by the producers of OxyContin, who told the Food and Drug Administration that “there was less than a 1 percent risk of addiction,” Nesin said.
OxyContin and oxycodone have been popular diverted prescription drugs in Maine for the last decade, and now opiates such as heroin and fentanyl are increasingly named as a cause of death in drug overdoses.
“The term ‘hillbilly heroin’ was coined here in Maine,” said Mark Woodward, a board member of Penobscot Community Health, referencing a New York Times article about opioids and Maine.
The number of drug-related deaths in Maine has increased steadily since 2000, when 60 Mainers died in drug-related incidents. By 2009, the figure was 179, and in 2014 it reached 208. Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said she expects the number to increase for 2015, but on Friday said official numbers are not yet available.
“Eighty percent — four out of five — of new heroin addicts started with prescription drugs,” King said.
“This problem starts with overprescribing,” King said. “Sixty doses of opiate pain medications are prescribed for every man, woman and child in the state.”
The senator also heard from Nick St. Louis of Otis, and Patty Hamilton, Bangor’s public health director. St. Louis told King about his fall into heroin addiction. He was first prescribed medication when he was 13 for anxiety, which he abused, and eventually he tried heroin at age 16 because “heroin was just cheaper than pain meds.”
St. Louis is participating in his sixth drug rehab program, this time with Suboxone replacement therapy that has helped him stay sober for nearly two years.
“I think that’s another one of the problems: It takes time,” King said.
“Treatment doesn’t always work the first time,” King said later. “You have to have patience.”
Hamilton compared drug addiction to diabetes or heart disease, saying people with these diseases are not chastised like a drug-addicted person is for falling off the wagon if they have a piece of cake or put salt on their French fries.
Nesin and Gardner also told King that there is a strong connection between early childhood trauma and future drug dependence.
“I had not heard that before,” King said at the end of the roundtable. “It demonstrates how deep and complicated this issue is and why there is no simple solution.”