My wife, Kathy, and I lost our first-born child, 21-year-old Will, to a heroin overdose six years ago, near the beginning of the current addiction/overdose epidemic.

Overdose deaths increase every year and now outnumber traffic fatalities. We need to stem the tide. Here are three ideas.

• I agree with Gov. Paul LePage that more law enforcement personnel need to be dedicated to drug dealers.

I am reminded of a 1968 tune by Steppenwolf, “The Pusher Man.” “The pusher is a monster, Good Lord, he’s not a natural man… Damn the pusher man!” Today’s pusher hails from Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia or New York. Maine has become just another street corner for these urban cartels. Gang bangers are here hoping to meet our kid and mine. Damn the pusher man, indeed.

• I also agree with Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and Gloucester, Massachusetts, Police Chief Leonard Campanello, who agree with health professionals that addiction is a disease, not a choice. (Eighty percent of current addicts identify a legitimate prescription as the beginning of their dependence.)

Shumlin is trying to make affordable rehabilitation available to all, while Campanello has offered amnesty from drug possession charges to addicts willing to enroll in treatment. We need to change the public perception of addiction and offer help to those who seek it. Financially, it is a no-brainer. The cost of incarceration exceeds $60,000 per year (plus the initial cost of investigation and prosecution) while rehabilitation is generally about $14,000 per year.

• The place where I think we can make the biggest difference, however, is through education. The right kind of education might have saved the life of our son. Will’s IQ remains one of the highest ever tested in the Skowhegan school system, but no one ever taught him that snorting or smoking heroin can be as dangerous as injecting it.

We cannot expect people to make good choices unless we arm them with the truth. We should require doctors who prescribe opiates to educate patients about the possibility of developing an addiction and the steps to take if they do.

I retired from teaching mathematics at Lawrence High School in 2011 to devote my life to volunteering in middle and high schools throughout New England. My mission is to educate students about these poisons. I have spoken more than 200 times, but, unfortunately, most of those have been outside Maine. Even though the Maine U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland has sent copies of the film we use in school presentations, “The Opiate Effect,” (available at vimeo.com/41741770), to every middle and high school in the state, only 31 Maine schools have invited me to speak to their students.

We need to do a better job. Hiding our heads in the sand will only exacerbate or prolong the problem. I encourage parents throughout the state to demand that their school officials get the real facts in front of their sons and daughters before it is too late.

The family you might save from having to live the unthinkable might indeed be your own.

Henry “Skip” Gates lives in Skowhegan. Email at [email protected]

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