BANGOR — The current drug addiction problem in Maine could be described by one word: more.
More resources are needed, more beds and more counselors as more people are dying of drug overdoses than at any point in recent history.
Community leaders gathered at the Bangor Arts Exchange Dec. 9 to watch an award-winning documentary, “Jacinta,” and discuss what might be done to help Mainers with substance use disorder.
Susan Young, editorial page editor for the Bangor Daily News, moderated the forum, which was attended by about a dozen people as well as several recovery organizations.
Maine is on track for 600 drug overdose deaths this year, Young said. Last year’s count broke a record with 502 overdose deaths, according to public health statistics.
The discussion followed a showing of filmmaker Jessica Earnshaw’s award-winning documentary.
The film follows Jacinta, a young southern Maine woman who has been in and out of prison since age 16.
“Jacinta attempts to break free from an inherited cycle of addiction, incarceration, and crime,” according to the film’s description.
Young said the film left her with a sense of “love and hope” and asked others on the panel how to keep that going.
One of the panelists, Robert Fickett, executive director of Bangor Area Recovery Network, described himself as a person in long term recovery from opiate addiction.
“I believe there’s nothing in the world that can’t be solved by love, caring and understanding,” Fickett said.
“I remind myself that I want to be the person that I needed,” he continued. “A lot of people were there for me with open arms. The thing I saw in the film that just kept jabbing at my heart — we keep trying to tell people about the reality of this as a disease. I saw someone in the grips of that disease who really did not have a choice.”
“The best way to deal with a problem is holistically,” said Robert LaPlante, regional correctional administrator. LaPlante supervises the probation officers in the northern half of the state.
“I think part of the answer is to have more events like this and get more people to attend events like this,” LaPlante said. “The more people attend and get involved, the more resources we’re going to get.”
“I think I need to share a secret about probation officers that most people don’t know,” he added. “It’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch people fail. Losing people, getting a phone call from a PD [police department] that someone you met with yesterday is gone, no matter what facade probation officers will give you, it is heartbreaking.”
“Eventually you will have people come back that don’t have to come back that will visit you, that will send you a letter — just to let you know, ‘You saved my life,’” LaPlante said. “The reality is they saved their own life. That is what keeps you going. That’s what gives you hope. That’s what keeps you going back.”
Also on the panel was state Rep. Amy Roeder (D-Bangor), who lobbied for treating people with substance use disorder as people and not addicts.
“They are people,” she said. “They are our community.”
“I’m a former foster mom and an adoptive mom and my kid’s bio [biological] mom is an incredible human being,” Roeder said. “She’s an incredibly kind woman and she could be Jacinta. She doesn’t have her boys now because she was suffering and didn’t get the help she needed.”
Roeder said her eyes were opened by the way her sons’ biological mother was treated by the system.
Morgan Connolly, deputy director of Strategic Planning in Maine’s Office of Behavioral Health, said, “The thing that keeps me going is the work we do right now at O&H to keep people alive until the point where recovery is an option.”
University of Maine Assistant Professor of Sociology Karyn Sporer, who described herself as a criminologist, said survey research she has conducted shows that Mainers are open to “harm reduction strategies and decriminalization” of drugs. They aren’t open to “legalization,” she added.
Maine has passed decriminalization legislation this year.
State Rep. Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington), who wasn’t at the event, successfully got legislation (LD 994) passed this year to decriminalize possession of needles.
Fickett said one thing he’s tired of hearing is that people “aren’t ready” for help.
“Nobody is beyond our reach,” Fickett said. “We’ve got to stop saying ‘they’re not ready.’ Them having that humanizing experience of knowing people care about them, they do have peers, they’re not in isolation, that’s going to do more for them than saying, ‘they’re not ready.’”
And then the poverty issue was broached.
“There are people who come into the peer center at the BARN [Bangor Area Recovery Network],” said a woman who works at the network. One guy “can barely see,” she said. “I’ve been calling everyone in the neighborhood to get him a pair of glasses and detox. It’s heartbreaking. And this is the guy who wants the help.”
“It’s really hard to move toward wellness when you’re worried about what you’re going to eat tomorrow or you don’t have adequate footwear,” he said.