JONESBORO — James Cox can remember when this small rural town felt like a safe place to raise a family.
But life here changed when OxyContin found Washington County.
Cox, 31, feels lucky to have survived his own addiction to prescription painkillers. Now, he and his wife are afraid to keep their family here.
“Either you rise above it or you go down with everyone else,” he said. “To raise two kids here is even scarier.”
Maine was hit earlier and harder by prescription painkiller abuse than much of the nation. And Washington County, at its eastern tip, has been considered ground zero for painkiller abuse in Maine for the past decade, since an explosion of addiction in Down East Maine and in West Virginia earned OxyContin the nickname “hillbilly heroin.”
With chronically low incomes and high unemployment, the county has struggled with poverty for generations. But it also had a sense of security and community.
Residents say painkiller abuse is taking that away, and giving them one more reason to leave.
Sheriff Donnie Smith worries the drug abuse and unemployment are now part of the same destructive cycle.
“The economy plays a big part in this” drug epidemic, he said. “But it’s pretty hard to bring in an industry if you don’t have a sober work force.”
In reality, prescription painkiller abuse has never been limited to any one county. Cumberland County, which has some the state’s highest incomes and lowest unemployment rates, saw the largest spike in fatal overdoses during the start of the painkiller abuse epidemic from 1998 to 2002, state statistics show.
Washington County, on the other hand, has had the state’s highest overdose rate from 2005 through 2008 — 17.7 deaths per 100,000 residents. The state’s average rate was 9.7.
Regardless of where it began, no place in Maine has been harder hit.
“It’s a national problem,” said Elmer Farren, a Maine State Police detective based in the county. “We just feel it more.”
Before OxyContin and other painkillers arrived, Farren typically chased small marijuana dealers and burglars who broke into unoccupied homes. Now he deals with hard drugs, weapons and face-to-face robberies, he said. “It’s gotten more dangerous.”
Smith, the sheriff, said he has had reports of fourth- and fifth-graders “dealing” prescription pills in school lunchrooms and more than a few reports of seniors on Medicare selling their painkillers for extra income.
Deputies recently charged a retired teacher with trading his pills for sexual favors from a number of young women, Smith said.
Smith warns seniors not to leave their pill bottles near windows where would-be robbers can see them. Desperate addicts even check the obituaries for people who die from cancer in hopes of stealing their leftover pills, he said.
“We’ve had four home invasions in the county since last September, and we’d never had one before,” Smith said. “Three of the four were people who knew there were drugs” in the homes.
Many here feel frustrated.
Smith said doctors are still not being careful enough about prescribing the pills to patients who don’t need them, and licensing boards are too lenient with careless prescribers. “I’ve only seen in my career one doctor lose his license in this county,” Smith said.
Smith said he’s glad he raised his children in this part of the state, but the drug epidemic has turned the slow pace of life from a blessing into a curse. “It’s very hard to keep a child focused because there isn’t much to do,” he said.
It’s hard for people to break out of their addiction in this part of the state. Treatment may be hours away, and addicts often don’t know where to go for help, said Cox, the recovering addict from Jonesboro.
Meanwhile, dealers seem to keep putting drugs on the streets, and most of the people he grew up with are still chasing the “mighty pill,” he said.
“Just nothing ever seems to get done.”