The drugs known as “bath salts” have received a lot of attention in Maine recently, mainly because their use has grown rapidly and can result in severe reactions such as paranoia, agitation, psychosis and violence.

Bath salts include amphetamines and drugs classified as synthetic cathinones. Like cocaine and amphetamines such as “meth,” they can produce dramatic and dangerous effects relatively quickly, so it is certainly important to acknowledge the serious nature of these drugs.

Maine, however, has been experiencing a far more widespread and dangerous drug epidemic for years, an epidemic that has received relatively little attention from policymakers and the press.

Use of opioids, including oxycodone, morphine and methadone and the street drug heroin, has been growing at an astonishing rate in Maine for at least a decade.

The use of opioids among women had a startling increase from 1998-2007: Heroin use increased 461 percent, methadone, 4,020 percent and other opiates and synthetics 1,232 percent.

The opioid group increased in the relative percentage of the whole of substance abuse from 7 percent in 1998 to 38 percent in 2007.

Maine ranks first in the United States in the per capita use of the prescription forms of opioids, a fact that should have galvanized a major public health and policy response.

And that fact doesn’t reveal some of the most tragic aspects of this crisis:

* In 2008, 215 babies were born addicted to opiates in Maine, a 16-fold increase since 2000.

* 1,445 Mainers lost their lives from drug overdoses from 1997-2008; 76 percent of those deaths were unintentional. The most common drug category involved in these deaths was opioids, either alone or with other drugs, accounting for 35.5 percent of the deaths.

Maine law enforcement officials have been increasingly vocal about the impact that opioid addiction has on crime. Once an individual has become addicted to opioids, however, simply jailing them has little effect on their behavior. As long as incarcerated individuals continue to be addicted, chronic reoffending is likely. It is through treatment and recovery programs that opioid addicted persons can begin to move toward recovery, returning to productive lives in society.

Unfortunately, during the same period that this epidemic has been growing, treatment resources in Maine have been dwindling because of funding cutbacks.

To address this problem, the Kennebec County jail created the Correctional Addiction Recovery Academy, or CARA, to help people overcome opiate addiction, according to Sheriff Randall Liberty.

CARA, created in partnership with Crisis & Counseling Centers, effectively engages participants to rethink and alter the negative behaviors associated with dependency. Since first piloted in late 2010, 63 men and women have graduated from the program, with another eight scheduled to graduate next week.

Programs such as CARA, however, can reach only a tiny percentage of the addicted population, and graduates still require significant recovery support to deal with the numerous challenges that await them when they re-enter the community.

Beyond the staggering human costs, having many thousands of untreated opioid addicts across Maine costs this state millions of dollars.

Some of the costs are seen in crimes that result in property loss, hospitalizations, shattered families and children taken into the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, the increased costs of law enforcement responses and incarcerations, and the loss of part of our work force.

And this drug crisis in our state is growing exponentially.

Rather than a fear-based response triggered by the increased use of bath salts that focuses exclusively on new laws and a purely criminal justice response, we need a strong coordinated effort to develop comprehensive prevention, treatment and law enforcement resources.

In Maine, this drug problem is fueled by poverty, isolation and despair, and it will not go away on its own.

Peter Wohl, director of outpatient services at Crisis & Counseling Centers, headquartered in Augusta, is a recent recipient of the state’s first Lisa Mojer-Torres Recovery Advocacy Award.

Editor’s note: Anthony Ronzio’s column, which usually appears in this spot, will return next week.

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