AUBURN — Drug treatment providers and addiction specialists gathered Tuesday to raise awareness about the variety of available programs and to offer a sense of hope amid the opioid crisis gripping the Androscoggin Valley and much of Maine.

During a forum at Central Maine Community College, speakers hit on a host of topics ranging from the pros and cons of residential versus outpatient treatment to needle exchange and pain management alternatives to addictive prescription drugs.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, organized the forum to help community members connect with services or support systems that they may not know exist. Poliquin said he comes at the addiction issue from experience after watching his brother struggle with addiction for decades and understands the frustration and confusion of family members unsure about where to turn for help.

Poliquin acknowledged that the wheels of government – particularly federal government – turn slowly but said community resources are available.

“There is help locally,” Poliquin said. “Right now there is help locally. My family went through this for 35 years with my late brother and sometimes you don’t know who to call, you don’t know what services are available. And sometimes you are a little bit embarrassed about talking about it with your neighbors and friends.”

Dr. Mike Kelley, chief of Behavioral Health Services at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, said working as a psychiatrist in substance abuse programs has renewed his spirituality “because you see miracles.” Recovery is a difficult process, but the odds improve when the person has a support network even when they fail, Kelley said.

Kelley said it is important that people maintain a sense of hope that someone can recover from their addiction because “if you don’t have that hope that it is going to happen, then you’ve lost everything at the beginning.” It’s extremely rare that someone walks into his clinic and gets sober on the first try.

“I talk about when we train our kids to ride a bicycle, you don’t expect them to ride a mile on the very first time. They get on, they take a few steps and they fall off,” Kelley said. “You don’t get angry at them for falling off. You encourage them and say, ‘I’m so glad you tried, let’s try it again.’ And then may fall off again and again, but each time they ride a little farther . . . until someday they ride and they never fall again.”

Tom Farrington with Catholic Charities of Maine’s St. Francis Recovery Center said he was one of those people who tried – and failed – at many treatment options until he finally got sober. He has been clean 28 years and now works with men at the center’s 16-bed residential treatment program.

“I benefit from all of these tools,” Farrington said. “Today we have these tools available. There are lot of great programs. We have a lot of agency (inter) connection and we’re working well together. We just need more.”

Treatment availability has become a major issue in Maine and across the country as the number of people addicted to opioids has skyrocketed in recent years. Many addicts got hooked while using prescription opioids for medical issues but switched to cheaper and more readily available heroin after prescription drugs became more difficult to obtain and more expensive.

Maine had more than 270 drug overdoses in 2015 – a 31 percent increase over the previous year – with the vast majority of them caused by opiates. Speakers largely steered clear of the policy debates over treatment versus law enforcement.

Gov. Paul LePage has suggested that naloxone, an antidote drug to counteract the effects of an opioid overdose, becomes a crutch, of sorts, for some addicts who have been revived repeatedly. Wading delicately into that debate, Dr. Peter Tilney, the head of the emergency medicine at Central Maine Medical Center, said he sees the drug’s life-saving abilities on a regular basis.

“Whether we like to admit it or not, it saves lives,” Tilney said.

On the law enforcement side, Auburn Police Chief Phillip Crowell said his department is working more to help drug users connect with treatment or other services rather than send them to jail. And Matt Cashman, supervisor for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency’s western division, said his agency is focused on stopping the out-of-state traffickers and Maine residents who with those traffickers, not the everyday drug user.

Tuesday’s event was the second opiate-related forum held by Poliquin, who is in a tight race for re-election this November. The first forum was held in June in Bangor.


CORRECTION: This story was updated at 7:54 p.m. on Aug. 17, 2016, to correct the time reference to when the first forum was held.

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