Paper lanterns with messages to those who have died from overdoses are shown in this picture.
Paper lanterns adorned with messages memorialize those killed by overdoses at a vigil in Portland on Thursday night. Last year, 376 Mainers died of drug overdoses. That's a 39 percent increase over 2015 when 272 people died, according to the Maine attorney general’s office. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, call 211 or visit 211maine.org.

CARIBOU, Maine — The need for a detoxification center in Aroostook County was one clear message that came from a public forum held Thursday night to address community concerns over the rising number of drug overdoses.

Aroostook County has been facing an increasingly worse drug problem in recent years, especially opioid use disorder, heroin and a crystal methamphetamine cross with fentanyl. In order to better communicate with the community, Recovery Aroostook invited a panel of experts over Facebook Live Thursday evening to discuss the drug epidemic, including how the situation got to this point and what the next steps are from here.

Among the panel put together by Recovery Aroostook was Caribou Fire Chief Scott Susi; Caribou Police Chief Micheal Gahagan; Courtney Cote, the project director for the rural recovery network grant at Cary Medical Center; Dr. Samuela Manages, a doctor from Pines Health Services who works with substance use disorder treatment and director of the new methadone clinic in Presque Isle; Peter Johnson, current supervisor of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency in Aroostook County; and Shannong Bragg, who works at the Center for Advancement of Rural Living and will be the house manager of the new women’s recovery and reentry home in Caribou.

The panel was also joined by Gordon Smith, director of opioid response in Maine, who was a spectator at the meeting.

The panelists urged listeners from the live audience at Caribou Public Library and Facebook Live to ask the “difficult questions” to make the discussion more meaningful. Questions were submitted via index cards through the moderator, who conveyed them to the panelists.

“I don’t think it’s something you can pinpoint to a certain area or town, and I would say that social media has made [getting drugs] easier than in the past,” said Peter Johnson of the MDEA. “In the past, you had to know someone who was farther downstate who knew someone outside the state, whereas now, social media is being used to facilitate those deals.”

The panel addressed some strategies that they have found to be effective for treating opioid use disorder, such as FDA-approved buprenorphine, suboxone and sublocade, which is a buprenorphine injection.

“We do have medications that absolutely work,” Dr. Samuela Manages said. “People will say ‘oh aren’t you just substituting one drug for another’, and the answer is no. Anyone who uses any substance, especially opioid use disorder, has it affect the brain. It changes [the brain’s] composition, personality and executive function.”

These FDA-approved medications are made to help treat those changes, he said.

There was also discussion about a police program that offers those found using illegal drugs an option for seeking additional relief aid, as an alternative to going to prison.

“Fortunately, we have the option program,” Chief Gahagan said. “It is a program that is funded by the state, and through [Aroostook Mental Health Center]. When law enforcement comes in contact with people with this disorder, we can give our contact with AMHC their information so they can reach out after we leave so that they can receive the assistance they need. Not just for them, but for their families.”

 Panelists addressed why they believe there has been such a high increase in overdose cases. “The answer to part of that is that you are always chasing that high, and you never know what you are getting when you ingest any type of illegal drugs,” the MDEA’s Johnson said.

There is no specific formula for mixing fentanyl with other drugs, which results in inconsistent final products. In the search for a greater high, people are putting themselves at higher risk of overdose by overmixing, he said.

A large part of the discussion was addressing the role that negative stigma plays in the road to recovery. A negative stigma toward those using drugs can often prevent struggling addicts from seeking help in the first place.

“We have to work on decreasing or eliminating stigma in the community,” Manages said. “Individuals who are going through this are part of a family, and they need to know that the doors are open to AMHC, and there are contacts at the Presque Isle emergency treatment center.”

Panelists finally pointed to the need for an inpatient detox center to be built in Aroostook County.

“I believe we should all contact our legislators, both state and federal,” Gahagan said. “We have one of the most powerful legislators in the country, and we should be able to utilize that for the county, to let them know what we need here. This is not a unique situation, but it is for Aroostook because we are so far away from any other support.”

 

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David DiMinno

David grew up in New York, and moved to Maine to study political science at the University of Maine. In his spare time, he loves hiking, playing tennis and skiing.