Maine addiction initiative: Will take the community to fight opioid abuse

By Daymond Steer

FRYEBURG, Maine — Stamping out opioid addiction and the drug dealers who fuel it will take effort from the entire community.

That message came through, loud and clear, from the Western Maine Addiction Recovery Initiative forum held Tuesday at Fryeburg Academy.

PanelistsPanelists took the stage at Fryeburg Academy on Tuesday. (DAYMOND STEER PHOTO)About 75 people attended — more than those who showed up at town meeting last June, which drew 66 people.

Panelists included police, emergency responders, prosecutors, treatment providers and recovering addicts.

Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant served as moderator.

A poignant moment came when Gallant took a question from a woman who said her 17-year-old is addicted to heroin and is involved with a local drug dealer. She tried to get her help but learned she could do nothing because of her daughter's age. She said one person she asked for help told her to "prepare for the worst."

"I'd just like to know where you go and what parents can do besides prepare for my daughter's death," the woman said, struggling to hold back tears.

Panelist Dr. Peter Leighton of Bridgton Intermal Medicine replied, "You can call me."

The audience responded with applause to Leighton, who said that when the young woman is ready to seek treatment, Bridgton Hospital has counselors and programs to treat her.

Gallant said Western Maine Addiction Recovery Initiative's Facebook also has a number of contacts people can use to find treatment.

Dr. Eric Slayton of Fryeburg Family Medicine said forums like Tuesday's are beneficial in addressing the "communications breakdowns."

"Without the communication from families to providers or from law enforcement to providers, it's a very difficult situation to try and cure," he said, noting that privacy laws and red tape can sometimes prevent him from getting useful information.

Panelist Andrew Kiezulas of Young People In Recovery of Portland, Maine, said encouragement from his mother helped in his battles with addiction. He said addicts are prone to giving up on themselves so they need support from loved ones.

"She was consistently, through my entire process of active IV drug use, just saying 'listen, I love you, Andrew; you are not alone; I'm here if you want help,'" said Kiezulas. "It meant so much."

Janice Davis of Lovell asked from the audience about what's being done about drug trafficking. "I personally know six children who have died," said Davis.

Gallant was pleased Davis brought up the subject of dealers. 

"Law enforcement is not just trying to help those who are addicted and those who are overdosing," said Gallant. "We want to stop this scum that's bringing the poison in and killing our people."

With that, he turned the microphone over to Tony Milligan of the Drug Enforcement Agency, Oxford County District Attorney Andrew Robinson and David Fisher of Maine's Attorney General Office. Each said law enforcement faces challenges when seeking out and prosecuting drug dealers but they have made some big busts and significant prosecutions.

Milligan said he worked a case where a dealer was bringing in $1.2 million worth of heroin to Fryeburg over a six month period. He said the public can do a lot by giving police tips.

"If you know there are six people in your community that are trafficking drugs but you are afraid to get involved, pick up the telephone and ask your name be kept anonymous," said Milligan, adding it is beneficial when multiple people report the same dealer. "It's not just our problem to fix. We need to work together."

But Davis said she's noticed that drug dealers seem to be released soon after they are arrested.

"There are plenty of drug dealers in this town," said Davis, adding some dealers don't use drugs but sell them to make a living.

Milligan said being able to prove in court that someone is dealing drugs takes "an incredible amount of time."

Robinson said the Attorney General's Office handles felony drug cases and the District Attorney's Office handles misdemeanors crimes and drug fueled burglaries. He said prosecutors really try to separate the professional drug dealers from the addicts who deal simply to feed their addiction. He said in the federal system, some convicted dealers are being released early because of prison overcrowding. Robinson said it's important to also remember the victims of crimes committed by addicts. He said victims of drug-fueled burglaries may want the suspect to be punished harshly rather than being given treatment.

"A community that wants to break the cycle of addiction has to change its perception of what criminal justice looks like, and that can be frustrating to the victims," said Robinson. 

Gallant said obituaries can tip off burglars to potential targets. If someone died of cancer, burglars may believe pain pills are in the home, and the time and place of the funeral would let burglars know when the home is vacant. He recommended that the family of the deceased have someone in the home during the funeral. He also suggested families dispose of the deceased's pills immediately by giving them to an emergency responder. 

Robinson said prosecutors need more than hearsay to make a conviction and often have to offer plea deals because they don't have the time and resources to bring every case to trial.

Fisher said it's hard to prosecute drug dealers because of witness credibility issues. He said the attorney general's office tries to have police officers make undercover buys, but that can be difficult.

"Drug traffickers don't sell to people they don't know," said Fisher. "We don't have priests and Boy Scout leaders able to get to drug traffickers and make buys from them."

When one drug dealer is taken down, he or she is quickly replaced, he said. When investigators happen upon a significant case, Fisher will call the U.S. Attorney's Office. Federal prosecutors have been successful in getting up to 20-year sentences for dealers. Fisher hopes those federal sentences aren't being reduced.

Fisher said most get out on bail because the system doesn't want to lock up people before they are convicted. And if the defendant seeks treatment, judges typically don't want to put the person back in jail.

From the audience, Ben Tucker of Sen. Angus King's office said Maine's federal lawmakers are concerned about heroin addiction and that it's affected even the smallest towns in northern Maine. He said over 200 people died of overdoses in Maine last year and ranged in age from 18 to 89.

One woman, who identified herself as a welfare director in New Hampshire, described the alienation many young people face. She said once the internet came along, people stopped being social and began focusing on their computer screens.

"These kids are sitting in the deep woods of Brownfield, I don't think they are connected to their friends, their family or anybody else, and are trying to raise themselves on guidance they received on Google," said the woman.