AUGUSTA — “We’re in the trenches of this now.”

That’s what Augusta police Chief Jared Mills said of the opioid crisis during a forum Tuesday night at Lithgow Public Library.

Mills appeared alongside Kennebec and Somerset counties District Attorney Maeghan Maloney; James’ Place Recovery House Executive Director Courtney Allen; Counselor Wilder Hart, from Augusta’s Crisis and Counseling Center; and program manager for MaineGeneral Health’s Drug Overdose Prevention & Harm Reduction Programs Shane Gallagher at the forum titled “Perspectives on the Opioid Crisis.”

Mills said opioids became prevalent in the Augusta area in 2012, when prescription painkillers often were being used or sold in Augusta.

“Those folks who have been prescribed those medication, you form this addiction, and it’s the same as what heroin does,” he said. “We had 12 or 13 pharmacy robberies.”

Mills said heroin dealers began traveling in large numbers to Maine in 2014 and 2015  because there was a strong market left by the painkillers. He said the drug trade operates like a business on supply and demand and has roles similar to those of a boss and subordinates at a traditional business.

“All the drug dealers from out of state realized this was a target-rich environment,” Mill said. “Heroin is much cheaper than … the stuff the pharmacy sells.”

“There are CEOs of the companies … and there are people who work in the organization down to salespeople,” he said, adding that the department targets “big fish” in these operations.

Gallagher said since 2014, overdose deaths have been ticking up. In February, the Portland Press Herald reported that state officials projected that opioid deaths and overdose deaths were down in 2018 from their peak in 2017. The report released by Attorney General Aaron Frey said there were 376 overdose deaths — 307 due to opioids — in 2018 and 418 total overdose death —354 due to opioids — in 2017. The report attributed 231 to nonpharmaceutical fentanyl and fentanyl analogs.

Fentanyl, which is cheap and highly potent, is often added to other drugs, such as heroin, to increase the quantity of salable drugs. Hart, who said he began seeing young people experimenting with opioids in 2009, said he is beginning to see a trend in which drugs tested come back positive for a mix of different opioids.

Discussion late in the forum transitioned to law enforcement’s role in combating addiction. Mills said his department often makes an arrest or writes a ticket but offers services to those dealing with drug addiction. He said the area’s resources are lacking, so finding the appropriate place for services is a challenge.

Further, Mills said his department was not “arresting (their) way out of this.” He said his department is seeking to arrest high-level drug dealers to take away supply, but with a lack of services to treat addiction, the demand will always remain. Allen runs two of 28 state-certified sober houses.

“It’s not me or my department that will solve the issue,” Mills said. “We’re so far behind in this area (in services) and it’s pathetic.”

Maloney echoed Mills, adding that law enforcement needs a place “in the middle” to send those with addiction instead of sending them to directly to jail. Mills said his department will arrest people in possession of drugs, but Maloney said her office won’t always prosecute those people unless there is “another criminality.” She added that there was a role for law enforcement in treating addiction, but addictions could be treated better in another setting.

“Our biggest detox center in the state is the jail; that’s just not the right way to do it,” Maloney said. “We need a place for people to go that is not jail; not just for substance abuse disorder, but for mental health.”

More funding for those efforts could be coming. The Portland Press Herald reported this month that Maine also will receive $2.3 million in federal funding to expand medication-assisted treatment programs for opioid use disorders.

When asked if widely available Narcan would encourage drug users to use more freely, Allen, who said she was recovering from substance use disorder, dissented, saying it was “like a task” to find drugs every day, and that being revived after doing drugs is “not fun.”

“There’s no such thing as a Narcan party,” Allen said.

The Press Herald reported that Gov. Janet Mills signed a $1.6 million order for purchasing 35,000 doses of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, or Narcan, and distributing them across the state, making medication-assisted treatment available in the the state’s criminal justice system; and creating a statewide network of recovery coaches.

Maloney also challenged a stigma against people who have recovered from substance abuse, referencing community leaders such as Allen, by saying lots of them have “turned their lives around” after going through programs.

“This is such a huge number of people. and we need them in our community,” she said. “We have people come back to be mentors, volunteering at different nonprofits in the area.”

The event, which was attended by about 30 people, was hosted by United Way of Kennebec Valley’s Emerging Leaders Society.

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