Devon Higgins started using drugs as a teenager who struggled with attention deficit disorder, anxiety and depression.

“He told me once that he immediately loved oxy (the synthetic opioid oxycodone) because he didn’t have any pain,” Higgins’ sister Jaime Higgins told the Press Herald. Last month, she got the call that her brother was dead, killed by an overdose before reaching his 30th birthday.

Devon Higgins’ death is far from unique. There were 272 drug overdose deaths in Maine last year, and that record is likely to be eclipsed in 2016. Like Higgins, many of these casualties had family members who cared about them and tried desperately to get them into treatment. In Higgins’ case, his sister is the coordinator of Operation Hope, the Scarborough Police Department’s effort to get addicts into treatment, and he was a successful graduate of Drug Treatment Court, thriving under the strict supervision the program offered.

Sadly, the help came too late. The time for intervention may have been long before he ever started.

Researchers in Canada have identified four traits that put young people at risk of addiction. They are sensation-seeking, impulsiveness, anxiety sensitivity and hopelessness.

Young people like Higgins could be struggling with one or more of these factors before they start to display symptoms that lead to diagnoses like ADD or depression in their teenage years. With the right intervention, they could learn to manage their conditions before finding a substance that makes all their pain disappear.

A new program called Preventure has been tested in Europe, Canada and Japan and has shown dramatic results. Instead of offering blanket statements like “Just say no” to discourage all children from getting involved in drugs, they identify the traits that put students at risk and involve them in workshops designed to work on their vulnerabilities. In early testing, researchers believe that they can identify up to 90 percent of the students at highest risk, and can prevent many of them from becoming addicted at a young and vulnerable age.

Maine’s opioid epidemic is a stubborn problem that does not lend itself to easy answers. Law enforcement is necessary to disrupt the supply of drugs, and access to treatment is essential to save the lives of the people who become addicted. But early intervention programs that prevent potential addicts from ever using in the first place may be the most important piece of an effective drug policy.

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