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Governor’s Address: There is no simple solution to the opioid epidemic, but there is hope

The following is an excerpt from Governor Mills’ remarks at her July 15 opioid response summit, “Turning the Tide: Maine’s Path Forward in Addressing the Opioid Crisis.”

You know, I subscribe to many newspapers, national and local. One I picked up at breakfast the other day began with a description of a city neighborhood which sounded like the setting of a television crime drama. It read:

“The sidewalks are littered with cigarette butts and people loiter outside the nearby grocery store. A man and a woman, both in their pajamas, scream at each other from opposite ends of the sidewalk. 

“A driver with all the car windows rolled down yells as he blows through a stop sign. The tires screech loudly as the car whips around the corner.

“The neighborhood children spend most of their day outside, riding their bicycles up and down the connecting streets. But by 8 p.m. they all disappear. Even if they aren’t on curfew, it’s as if they know better than to be alone on these streets at night.

“Drug busts seem more common here than on the other side of the…city. It’s usually not difficult to pick out which buildings might be housing drug deals, either. Often it’s the ones with overgrown weeds on the front lawns and porches that look like they are on the verge of collapsing.

“Late at night, the dark sky conceals everything except the bright yellow headlights of each new car, alerting neighbors that another guest presumably is paying a visit for drugs. The usual visitors make quick pit stops at these places, and most of the time they don’t stick around for too long.”

The city described in this article is not Lowell or Lawrence, Massachusetts, or Brooklyn, New York, or Boston, or even Portland, Maine. 

It is, in fact, Presque Isle, the “Star City” of our state, a small, friendly community always considered a safe place to raise a family on a farmer’s or teacher’s or trucker’s salary, a place where children were safe and community values were strong.

The article in the Bangor Daily News went on to note that, while Aroostook County had the highest rate of drug trafficking or manufacturing arrests by the MDEA in recent years, and while it had the second highest rate of substance-exposed babies, the County also had the lowest rates of 211 help line calls relating to substance use in the whole state.

What’s wrong here? What are we missing – not only in Aroostook County, but in our fifteen other counties and in every one of our more than 400 communities, where we have seen this epidemic take hold in a quiet, tragic, and very frustrating way?

For one thing, I think for too long we have viewed the opioid problem with a narrow and occasional lens… Until now, we have looked at drugs as just a criminal justice problem, or just a health care issue, or just another challenge for overburdened teachers in our schools. 

We point the finger to some publicly identifiable source of the problem and we readily blame some bad actor, some specific villain, passing off the ultimate responsibility, not to ourselves, but to some dealer or trafficker or another, or to some agency of government or another. It’s always somebody else’s problem and somebody else’s responsibility.

It’s time to get out of the silos and halos… And that’s why we are here today. We are going to hear from law enforcement, the medical establishment, public officials and, yes, the most important voices – those of the recovery community…

In the past five years, more than one thousand seven hundred people in Maine have died from drug overdose – more than the entire population of Chesterville, or Eastport, or North Berwick. 418 people in 2017, 354 in 2018, 74 deaths in the first quarter of this year.

Now, for goodness sake, if seventeen hundred baby seals washed up on the shores of Cape Elizabeth, we would be marching in the streets. We would not stop until we knew what had caused it and how we could stop one more seal from dying…

These people are not ‘junkies.’ They are our neighbors, coworkers, family members, schoolmates, they are graduates of high schools, CTEs, universities, and colleges. They are our sons and daughters. They are people without labels, citizens without stereotype. They are athletes and businesspeople, fishermen, cooks and clerks. Mothers and fathers. People we see every day. We cannot abandon them. The time for action is now.

We are putting the full force of this Administration behind the families who have lost loved ones, the businesses who have lost valued employees, and all communities that have been diminished by this public health crisis, for as long as it takes, until our state recovers from something so severe that is draining our workforce, diminishing our families, and eating our soul.

I know that healing our state from the ravages of the opioid epidemic is a complicated challenge that will not be erased overnight. But today, we are getting together to brainstorm and learn and work on a comprehensive and well informed plan to chip away at this insidious crisis. Let’s not be disheartened. There is no simple solution, but there is hope. 

Here’s something else I read recently, in a book, not a newspaper. It said:

“Heroin is, I believe, the final expression of values we have fostered for thirty-five years. It turns every addict into narcissistic, self-absorbed, solitary hyper consumers. A life that finds opiates turns away from family and community and devotes itself entirely to self-gratification by buying and consuming one product – the drug that makes being alone not just all right, but preferable.”

The author continues:

“I believe more strongly than ever that the antidote to heroin is community. If you want to keep kids off heroin, make sure people in your neighborhood do things together, in public, often…. Break down those barriers that keep people isolated. Don’t have play dates; just go out and play. Bring people out of their private rooms, whatever forms those rooms take.

“Pursuit of stuff doesn’t equal happiness, as any heroin addict will tell you. People…may emerge from this plague more compassionate, more grounded, willing to give children experience rather than things, and show them that pain is a part of life and often endurable. The antidote to heroin may well be making your kids ride bikes outside, with their friends, and letting them skin their knees.”

The author of that powerful statement, from the book “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” is with us today… Sam Quinones’ description of the city of Portsmouth, Ohio, could well be a description of Presque Isle, Maine, and many other communities across our state.

Published in 2015, Dreamland vividly recounts how a flood of prescription pain medicine, along with black tar heroin from Mexico, transformed the once-prosperous blue-collar city of Portsmouth, Ohio, and other American communities into heartlands of addiction.

Mr. Quinones introduces us to the people at the heart of the opioid trade and describes in great detail the marketing of prescription opiates by unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies.

This book in so many ways has changed the debate in this country about the impact of drugs and the potential solutions to the epidemic. I am thrilled that Sam and his wife and daughter, who live in Southern California, accepted our invitation to make his first appearance in Maine, and I am very grateful to him for sharing his time with us today.

With his help, in the not too distant future, the headlines in our newspapers will no longer highlight isolated neighborhoods, but will read instead: “Maine has turned the tide. We have cured our deadliest disease. We have found our soul again.”

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