WINTHROP — When John Dovinsky was growing up in San Diego, heroin was, by his own definition, “a street drug that was only used by junkies and musicians.”

But now, the chief of the local ambulance service said Thursday morning, “heroin is a drug that we’re seeing everywhere. There is no stigma attached to this drug anymore. There is no sociological avenue that heroin doesn’t cross out of anymore. I see people overdose in apartments. I see people overdose in cars. I see people overdose in $750,000 houses.”

Dovinsky was speaking to 25 businesspeople, teachers, lawyers, administrators and area residents who had come to a monthly breakfast hosted by the Winthrop Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce. He was addressing a subject that has become a regular topic at forums across Maine: the opiate crisis that has afflicted the state and region.

Dovinsky no longer lives and works in a large West Coast city, he reminded the audience. The Winthrop Ambulance Service serves seven towns in western Kennebec County, all of which are rural or semi-rural. But despite the isolation of communities such as Monmouth and Mount Vernon from the urban centers where the drug trade traditionally has been centered, they have still seen a recent uptick in heroin use.

“In the last 15 months, we have dealt with over 60 overdoses. We have administered Narcan 27 times within the seven communities we cover,” Dovinsky said, referring to the drug that can counteract heroin overdoses. “That’s a lot. That’s a lot. … We were using Narcan just a handful of times seven or eight years ago. All of sudden we’ve got this upswing.”

In the Thursday morning talk, Dovinsky was joined by Chief Ryan Frost and Detective Peter Struck, of the Winthrop Police Department, as well as Kennebec County Sheriff Ryan Reardon.

But though the speakers came from a mix of law enforcement and emergency medicine backgrounds, all agreed that it will take a mix of arrests and treatment options to resolve the ongoing opiate crisis.

Several of the speakers pointed to a lack of affordable and effective drug treatment options. Taken together, their speeches illustrated the way in which a lack of treatment and recovery options is contributing to a variety of ills: more overdoses, drug-addicted babies, burglaries and worse crimes by those trying to feed their habit, and the resulting surge in incarceration.

“Why is a law enforcement officer up here talking about recovery and treatment? Because I’m sick of having (drug users) in my jail,” Reardon said. “All we’re doing is separating families. Most of these people didn’t go into this saying, ‘I want to be an addict.'”

Statewide, drug overdose deaths increased by 31 percent in 2015, reaching a new high of 272 fatalities that was fueled by a near doubling of heroin deaths, according to data released last month by the attorney general’s office. There were 107 deaths from heroin, compared to 57 heroin overdoses the previous year.

In 2015, Kennebec County had 33 overdose deaths, up 65 percent from 20 in 2014.

“That is a staggering number,” said Frost in his opening remarks. He pointed out that it’s not just opiates, but also other drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine, that are abused in Maine.

Winthrop has had a number of overdoses in the last year, but Frost said that none has been fatal. He credited the town’s ambulance crews with always responding quickly to such incidents.

Several of the speakers mentioned the overprescription of pain medications in the last decade as a cause of the current crisis.

No one who spoke downplayed the importance of law enforcement in addressing the drug crisis. Frost said he regularly works with members of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, Maine State Police and Maine Drug Enforcement Agency to solve drug-related crimes and look at longer term solutions to the crisis.

The problem, he said, is that drug use often can lead to property crimes such as burglary and violent crimes such as robbery and aggravated assault. Over the last five years, the department has responded to seven robberies at places such as pharmacies and homes, Frost said. Heroin was definitely involved in five of those cases and suspected as a cause in the other two.

Beyond putting themselves and the public at risk, drug users also can create danger for those who respond when they overdose, according to Dovinsky, the ambulance chief. He mentioned a recent case in which a paramedic in New York was attacked by a man whom he had just revived with Narcan.

“We won’t enter an unsafe scene without law enforcement,” said Dovinsky. “These folks, when you wake them up, they’re generally not happy — one, because you ruined their high; two, because if they haven’t been breathing long enough … when they come to and are standing there, they don’t really know who we are, and sometimes that can be bad.”

To that end, Dovinsky said his responders have started administering lower doses of Narcan, so that the patient will start to breathe again but not wake up immediately.

Both Dovinsky and Struck, the Winthrop detective, urged anyone to contact police if they notice suspicious circumstances, such as used needles by the side of the road, empty boxes of Sudafed (a drug that can be used in the cooking of methamphetamine) in the dumpster or strangers acting suspiciously.

As for longer-term solutions to the drug crisis, Dovinsky urged attendees to speak with their lawmakers about creating more treatment options for drug users. It can take months and even years to overcome a heroin addiction, he said, and it’s easy for those not in an intensive recovery program to relapse.

Frost and Reardon agreed about the need for both more treatment options and funding sources for drug users who can’t afford the thousands of dollars needed to enter a recovery program.

Frost said he would like to create a program that steers drug users who have broken the law directly into treatment programs, such as one the Scarborough Police Department is now trying to implement, but that there is not enough funding available to do so in Winthrop at this point.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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