People at a candlelight vigil Thursday night in Monument Square remember those lost to drug overdoses, during Portland’s fourth annual Overdose Awareness Night. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

Portland, Westbrook, Sanford and Bangor were among more than 300 communities across the nation and around the world that held ceremonies Thursday evening to mourn those who lost their lives to a drug overdose.

More than 150 people gathered in Portland’s Monument Square as part of International Overdose Awareness Day, posting photographs, names and personal stories on a Memorial Wall. A message at the foot of the wall read, “Remembering those we’ve lost. Raise awareness today. Let’s end the suffering now. Be compassionate.”

Several people also stood at a podium where they read aloud the names of about 250 Portland-area individuals who died from drug overdoses, while others carried candles in memory of lost loved ones. Organizers said most of those individuals died this year.

“I think it’s safe to say that this list is a lot longer than it has been in the past,” said Zoe Odlin-Platz, a community health promotion specialist for Portland’s Public Health Division, which sponsored the event in Monument Square.

Drug overdose deaths in Maine have been steadily climbing since 2012. Last year, 376 people died from an overdose in Maine – the highest number of drug fatalities the state has recorded and an increase of 38 percent over 2015.

An overwhelming majority of those deaths have been linked to opioids, either heroin or fentanyl or prescription painkillers such as OxyContin. The epidemic has spread throughout every corner of Maine and has worsened in part because of policymakers’ unfocused and lackluster effort to address the problem.

Odlin-Platz said International Overdose Awareness Day is held every year on Aug. 31. This was Portland’s fourth annual remembrance.

“Countries all over the world are involved,” Odlin-Platz said. Similar gatherings were held in countries such as Afghanistan, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Lebanon, Nepal, Norway, Scotland and Spain.

Tim Talbot Sr. of Portland writes on the memory board in honor of his son during Thursday’s vigil in Monument Square in Portland. Tim Talbot Jr. died at the age of 41 from an overdose laced with fentanyl. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

Timothy Talbot Sr. and his wife, Roseanne, of Portland lost their son, Timothy Talbot Jr., 41, to an overdose in April. He died in Biddeford after using heroin laced with fentanyl. Their son’s two children, ages 4 and 16, are now under their care. Instead of retiring, Timothy, 66, and Roseanne, 65, are parents again.

The Talbots, who raised seven children, said they are glad they came to the vigil. They felt loved and supported by the crowd that showed up for the event.

“We do our best,” Timothy said of their new roles.

The city of Westbrook also participated in International Overdose Awareness Day. About 80 people gathered in Riverbank Park and walked along the Presumpscot River to Gazebo Park on Main Street.

The gazebo was dedicated to all those who have lost their lives to or been affected by substance use disorder. For over an hour, speakers talked about their loved ones lost to addiction or their own journey in recovery.

Police Chief Janine Roberts said her department has responded to more than 100 drug overdose calls in 2016 and through August. Four Westbrook residents died during that period from overdoses.

Flowers line the path at the gazebo in Westbrook on Thursday in honor of loved ones lost to overdose Staff photo by Megan Doyle

“Those statistics are not just numbers,” Roberts said.

The Maine Attorney General’s Office, which tracks drug-related deaths, has not released updated data for 2017 yet, but Andrew Roth-Wells, a spokesman, said Thursday that anecdotal information indicates that the first six months of this year are on track with the first six months of 2016.

Roth-Wells also said there has been an observable increase in deaths from fentanyl, which has flooded the illicit drug market and in many cases has supplanted heroin. He said the AG’s office plans to release a full report detailing overdose deaths from January through July.

Staff Writers Eric Russell and Megan Doyle contributed to this report.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

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