AUGUSTA — Heroin use is on the rise locally, regionally and statewide, and it could get even worse because of a proposal to eliminate funding for methadone to treat addicts, a local substance abuse expert told city councilors Thursday.

And use of the highly addictive and unhealthy drug can affect not just users but also anyone in the community who could become a victim of a desperate addict willing to commit crime to get a fix.

Neill Miner, substance abuse prevention program manager for Healthy Communities of the Capital Area’s Southern Kennebec Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention, said 189 people were admitted for treatment for heroin or morphine addiction in 2012 in Kennebec County, and that number increased to 264 in 2013. He also said that among people seeking treatment for drug addiction, 13 percent were addicted to heroin in 2012, while in 2013 that percentage increased to 20 percent.

Miner said that over the last eight months Augusta police made 20 arrests related to heroin and responded to 53 drug overdoses, 14 of which were from the use of heroin.

He cited a recent MaineGeneral assessment of its needle exchange program which saw an increase in the number of needles — used for both legal and illegal drugs — exchanged from 31,000 in 2012 to 83,000 in 2014.

“So we’re seeing a significant upward trend,” Miner told councilors. “Drug Enforcement Agency statistics show a dramatic increase statewide in violations. We’ve got the drug on the street. There is no question about it. And it is putting everyone at risk, as users try to get what they need to feed their addiction.”

He said there is a recent trend of Mainers, especially in the southern part of the state, addicted to pharmaceutical drugs and turning to heroin when they can’t get their drug of choice.

He said a proposal within Gov. Paul LePage’s state budget to greatly restrict Medicaid funding to treat addicts with methadone could prompt some addicts now in treatment to turn back to heroin.

“We’ve got 4,000 people across the state on methadone,” he said. “If that’s not accessible, they may go to heroin, or they may go to (the treatment drug) Suboxone.”

Councilors said the city needs to partner with others, including Kennebec County, to explore ways to reduce the use of heroin.

“The numbers are pretty staggering, surprising and concerning,” Ward 2 Councilor Darek Grant said. “It’s not really on the radar of some in the communities around here. We’re starting the conversation here in Augusta.”

One of the formal goals set by city councilors this year was to target drug abuse in the city and specifically to eliminate heroin.

City Manager William Bridgeo said that’s a major reason he included $130,000 in funding in his proposed budget to hire two new police detectives he hoped would “combat the growing problem of drug abuse and related criminal activity in the city.”

Bridgeo said the discussion with Miner was, in part, to help set the stage for councilors’ upcoming discussion of the Police Department budget and the proposal to increase funding for drug enforcement by hiring the two new detectives.

The department has four detectives now.

Police Chief Robert Gregoire has said the city and the rest of Kennebec County have experienced in the last few years an increase in drug activity and crimes related to it. He said drug use is a major contributing factor to a number of other crimes, including assault, disorderly conduct, domestic violence, child abuse and theft, as people commit crimes to get drug money or simply make bad decisions while under the influence of drugs.

At-Large Councilor Jeffrey Bilodeau said the city probably will host a “town hall” type of meeting with local officials, law enforcement leaders from the county and elsewhere, and substance abuse treatment and prevention experts to form a plan to fight the problem.

“We need to look at different options we can use to mitigate, support and help people get off the different types of addictions they may be on,” Bilodeau said, “and get rid of those who are providing this supply in Augusta.”

Miner said he was pleased when he read in the newspaper that the city had made eliminating heroin use part of its strategic plan for the year. He said a comprehensive approach is needed incorporating prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery, and law enforcement is linked to each of those four areas. He also praised councilors for realizing that heroin addicts and other addicts are not evil people.

Actions he recommended to combat the increase in heroin use include increased law enforcement, increased awareness in the community of the problem and ways to report it to authorities, increased sharing of information on the risks of heroin use, reduction in the supply of opioid medications to prevent their misuse, and expanded partnerships to help get more people using heroin into treatment and recovery programs.

He noted people with unwanted or unneeded medications may get rid of them Saturday at the Augusta Police Department as part of a drug take-back day.

Miner said heroin is not popular with young people, but it is accessible to them.

He said it is widely available on the street from both local people and members of out-of-state-based drug gangs.

Health effects of heroin use can include collapsing veins, infection of heart lining and valves, liver disease and abscesses, and use of the drug also has been linked to the transmission of HIV, AIDS and hepatitis B and C and to birth defects.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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