As one of Central Maine’s few addiction providers, I took great interest in the Maine Compass about drug addiction from Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew (“Fighting against our heroin crisis,” Nov. 10). I was astounded by a statement in which she seems to suggest that addiction treatment is readily available for Mainers who need it.

This has not been my experience.

My office phone rings daily with people looking for help. Most we have to turn away. The other practices that do this work are likewise full. There are very few treatment centers in Maine, and those are generally full with long waiting lists.

I have been a family practice doctor in central Maine for more than 25 years. Until 10 years ago, my work was the usual run of taking care of diabetes, high blood pressure, coughs and colds, doing physicals and giving flu shots.

Then a patient confessed to me that she was addicted to prescription opiates (prescribed by well-meaning doctors after various surgeries). When they no longer gave her prescriptions, she bought drugs on the street. She asked for treatment, which I was unable to provide at the time because I was neither trained nor licensed for that.

I eventually got that training, and was able to treat her. After five years of treatment with medication, she “graduated,” is drug-free and is living a normal life.

Unfortunately, her case was just the tip of the iceberg. The overprescription of potent narcotics by physicians — stemming from a combination of ignorance of the consequences, convenience during a busy office day, and heavy marketing from pharmaceutical companies — inadvertently addicted thousands of people.

As physicians corrected this problem, the street supply of prescription narcotics greatly decreased. Unfortunately, a vast supply of cheap heroin, often laced with potent synthetic drugs like fentanyl, replaced the prescription drugs.

The number of overdoses in Maine and the country has skyrocketed, greatly surpassing the number of deaths from motor vehicle accidents and gunshots. Last year, 208 Maine people fatally overdosed, with 57 primarily because of heroin and 43 because of fentanyl.

Now more than half of my practice time is spent taking care of drug-dependent people. I have witnessed how drug addiction is ravaging Maine. It’s incomprehensible to me that “99 percent of adults age 26 or older who needed addiction treatment for illicit drug use were able to receive it,” as Mayhew asserts.

I fear that more Mainers will have to go without treatment. This year, we saw the flagship treatment program at Mercy Hospital in Portland close for lack of funding. The head of a program in Sanford, meanwhile, blamed its closure on the lack of funding support from the LePage administration

Patients who are lucky enough to get into treatment in Maine usually struggle with the costs. Many young adults have no insurance and do not qualify for MaineCare because of the governor’s refusal to expand the program.

Law enforcement has an important role in stopping the supply of drugs entering Maine. But as long as demand exists, the drugs will come in. We have been fighting the “War on Drugs” for more than 50 years now, and narcotics are less expensive and more available than ever.

Many law enforcement officers recognize that incarceration is not the solution. They see that even after years of incarceration, with enforced detoxification and sobriety, the dangers for opiate-dependent individuals are very real after their release. Without a job, insurance or medical treatment, they can relapse and end up in jail again — at great cost to themselves and to society.

Treatment is far more cost-effective. A growing number of law enforcement agencies, such as the Scarborough Police Department’s Operation Hope and a program being set up in Augusta, are actively helping addicts get into treatment, rather than jail.

In order for these alternate programs to work, however, we need to have places that can provide that treatment.

Addicted individuals are not “bad people from away.” They are our parents, our children and grandchildren. They are our friends and co-workers and neighbors. They deserve access to treatment.

I urge the Maine Legislature, when it goes into session this January, to develop a comprehensive plan to address this terrible problem, and develop programs that address prevention, treatment and law enforcement. I urge Gov. Paul LePage and his administration to embrace such a plan for the good of Maine people and our state.

Gust Stringos, D.O., who works at Somerset Primary Care, has lived in Somerset County since 1975.


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