Maine is facing a crisis in the form of heroin addiction. This highly addictive drug and its deadly grip within our state are taking lives, destroying futures, tearing apart families, increasing violent crime and leaving newborn babies to detox in hospitals.

Mainers see it every day in their communities, in the media and, unfortunately, in their own families.

Although Maine and the nation have been fighting a war on drugs for decades, the recent heroin epidemic is one of its most dangerous fronts. We must employ strategies to save those in the grips of this deadly drug, prevent others from starting down this horrendous path, restore the stability of families, protect vulnerable children and improve the safety of our communities.

While it will take a community response and statewide efforts, at Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services under Gov. Paul LePage, we are undertaking several innovative strategies to combat this growing crisis.

To start, state substance abuse treatment funding has increased 34 percent, from $22 million to $30 million annually. Total state and federal addiction treatment spending now exceeds $76 million, up 32 percent since 2008. Many of these funds are set aside for the uninsured, and in state fiscal year 2013, 99 percent of adults age 26 or older who needed addiction treatment for illicit drug use were able to receive it.

However, we are not going to spend our way out of this crisis. We have to be smarter and more creative.

Prescription painkiller abuse is the leading gateway to heroin addiction, and once hooked on heroin, only 36 percent of addicts in Maine complete treatment. That’s why it’s important to tackle the problem of prescription opioids before users try their first hit of heroin.

Our Medicaid pain management program began attacking the gateway effect of prescription opioids by instituting limits on how many opioid painkillers doctors can prescribe to Medicaid patients.

It also encourages alternative forms of treatment such as physical therapy, osteopathic manipulative treatment and chiropractic care, reducing Maine’s Medicaid opioid prescriptions by 45 percent since 2012. Compare that to a simultaneous 5 percent increase in opioid prescriptions among private insurers.

The Maine Prescription Monitoring Program also prevents patients from “doctor-shopping” for more painkillers. The shared data allow doctors to see whether they may be overprescribing compared to their peers; identify suspects engaged in prescription fraud, forgery and theft; and allow for the geographic and demographic tracking of prescription trends and risks. Since 2012, inquiries to the Prescription Monitoring Program have increased from 34,000 to 107,000.

We also must stay engaged in local communities. In October, I joined a forum in Brewer that featured a “Heroin Alert” presentation from a Delaware mother who lost her daughter to heroin addiction. DHHS staff shared information about treatment options available throughout Maine. The forum helped to raise awareness of the heroin crisis facing Maine and the nation.

I recently spoke with a mother whose daughter nearly died of an overdose. She wanted me to understand the importance of long-term residential treatment, that those entering treatment have to want to get sober, and her concerns about any initiative that does not emphasize and support people toward long-term recovery and sobriety.

Though some say we cannot arrest our way out of this problem, it is equally true that we cannot ignore the increasingly organized and sophisticated supply side of the heroin equation. In the DHHS’ controlled substances forensics lab, where we test narcotic samples confiscated by law enforcement, we have seen a dramatic increase in high-purity and fentanyl-laced heroin throughout the state.

And for the first time, the heroin found in Washington and Piscataquis counties is as potent as that found in Portland. That’s because organized gangs are coming from out of state and systematically selling high-purity heroin town by town to get young people hooked. Lawmakers must provide more resources to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency to combat these new cartels.

But perhaps the biggest lesson to remember is that the government cannot solve this problem alone. This is a crisis that will require families, teachers, friends, clergy, counselors — everybody — to become more involved in the lives of those around them.

We all need to learn the risk factors and warning signs of heroin addiction and talk with those we think may be at risk. We are all on the front lines in the war against heroin addiction, and together we are stronger as we battle this deadly drug.

Mary Mayhew is commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

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