STORIES OF OPIATE ADDICTION are very common in Maine news. With a population of just a little more than 1 million people statewide, it’s still shocking whenever an overdose is reported. Within the past decade, heroin and prescription opiate abuse in Maine has skyrocketed. Heroin purity levels have gone up while street prices have dropped. Now in 2016, heroin and other opiates are no longer considered “hard drugs” that people do in secret, they’re out in the open at parties and it’s no longer jarring to hear someone you know talk about their use of heroin, Oxycontin, Suboxone, Percocet or Vicodin.
I graduated from a Maine high school in 2007 when prescription pills were just starting to be offered at parties — they were stolen from parents’ medicine cabinets or left over from wisdom teeth operations. Two years later and just a few miles away from my house, a fellow student passed away from hypothermia near a gravel pit after taking muscle relaxers. Today, if I tried to count the people I know who have experimented with prescription opiates and/or heroin, I wouldn’t be able to and I’d have to include myself. Within that count, there would be acquaintances, friends and boyfriends who have experienced a minor curiosity spiral into a years-long struggle with addiction.
It may not be a negative thing that the stigma surrounding opiate addiction is disappearing. Today, everyone knows someone — especially within my millennial age group. Because I personally know people who are struggling and I respect them, it has become impossible for me stay silent on the issue of a possible solution. Opiate experimentation and addiction is now the status-quo and Maine has to deal with it.
Bill Scannell, a Massachusetts resident who recently lost his 20-year-old son to a heroin overdose, wrote in his son’s obituary, “My son wasn’t a junkie. He wasn’t some back-alley alley heroin addict.”
Bill’s son, Emmett, was a member of the National Honors Society and he was attending Worcester State on a full academic scholarship. Maine has to start thinking of its people like Bill still thinks of his son: like a human being who is far more than his or her addiction.
According to Maine’s Dept. of Health and Human Services (DHHS), in 2014, 350,000 Maine residents were prescribed a total of 80 million doses of opiates. That’s about 1 in 4 Mainers and that statistic only accounts for the people who received their drug from a physician. Opiate addicts are working professionals, they’re people with families, they’re college students, graduates, they’re people who have hopes and plans for their individual futures — that stuff doesn’t go away when you get addicted to pills or heroin. Many of these addictions have stemmed from work injuries or flourished after routine operations you get in high school. Maine’s addiction problem is robbing our state of the young spirit that keeps our community progressing into the future, and that is a serious loss considering we’re so hard-pressed to keep people here in the first place.
For years, we’ve been joining the rest of the nation in throwing more pharmaceutical drugs on top of addiction and just calling it good. To manage an Oxycontin addiction, you’re prescribed Suboxone. When you get addicted to Suboxone and can no longer afford it, you resort to heroin. When you want to get off heroin, we send you to your nearest Methadone clinic. Maine began treating opiate addiction with Methadone in 1995. By 1996, 200 people were using it. Today, there are at least 1,500. Finally, people are feeling comfortable enough to publically share their stories of completing this same cycle over and over again, with no real hope that it’s actually going to work this time. They’re joined by advocates and concerned family and friends, together the Maine community is demanding that our state offer up a better solution to addiction than Narcotics Anonymous, Methadone and a positive attitude.
Last month, Maine medical marijuana caregivers requested a public hearing in front of DHHS, asking that opiate addiction be considered an acceptable condition for using medical marijuana. Maine is not the first state to have this idea. States with more lenient medical cannabis laws, like Massachusetts and California, have been prescribing it for awhile on a case-by-case basis. However, Maine would be the first state to formally put it out there as a condition, effectively recognizing that opiate addiction is a serious issue now. Maine can set this example publically and expect the rest of the nation to follow suit and recognize the problem as well.
On April 18, more than 50 caregivers, patients and supporters showed up to the public hearing to show support, and nearly 30 people shared a story about how medical cannabis has helped them. The DHHS heard stories from a 23-year-old college student, Britney Lashier, who kicked a heroin addiction that she had picked up in Morocco by replacing it with medical marijuana.
“Marijuana saved my life for sure,” Lashier said.
Fifty-year-old Mainer Joseph Legendre spoke about a construction injury, and how medical cannabis is the only thing that can safely alleviate his pain — the alternative obviously being prescription opiates.
The hearing continued on with people from all different age groups and backgrounds speaking about their own addictions or the loss of friends or family members to opiate abuse. Their testimonies were joined by those of four Maine physicians, who claimed that even though the solid research and evidence isn’t there yet, the progress they’ve seen from their patients is evidence enough that medical cannabis should at least be considered an option for opiate addiction.
Representatives of the Maine Medical Association and Maine Association of Psychiatric Physicians were the main opponents of the petition, stating that there just isn’t enough hard evidence to back up the claim. Psychologist Leah Bauer told the Press Herald, “Medical marijuana may be throwing gasoline on the fire.”
There’s a chance that could be true, but no former opiate addict showed up to the hearing and shared a story of how medical marijuana made their life or addiction worse. It may be time for Maine, my home state, to take a risk and listen to the people bravely sharing their own stories. These are the people who have pulled themselves up from something that truly seems and must feel like a death sentence — they’re telling us what could work for them and we need to listen. If Maine doesn’t take a risk and try something new, what’s our alternative?
Maine’s DHHS has 180 days to formulate a response to the hearing. In the meantime, you can learn more about the cause and offer support here. Dr. Dustin Sulak, perhaps Maine’s most well-known medical cannabis physician and advocate, will be offering a free presentation in Portland on May 10th about how medical marijuana has helped his own patients in their struggles with addiction. The presentation will also be streamed live. Dr. Sulak is requesting that anyone who has ever used opiates take his anonymous survey. And if you’re interested in seeing for yourself what the day-to-day struggles of a person addicted to heroin in Maine are like, Erin Rhoda and her colleagues at The Bangor Daily News wrote an in-depth profile and produced a 3-minute documentary about a 20-year-old Maine man who lost his life to opiate abuse.