Lake Region Substance Abuse Coalition takes aim at opiate crisis

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Quietly, for the past six months, a group of concerned medical professionals and counselors have been meeting in the Bridgton Community Center with one goal in mind — to confront opiate abuse where it lives, locally.

In the next month or so, the Lake Region Substance Abuse Coalition plans to go public, by inviting a larger discussion that could lead to funding for locally-based addiction treatment and prevention.

“Most people think there’s no problem in our community,” Bridgton Police Chief Richard Stillman said. “They don’t see it. But when you’re a cop or a doctor, you see it every day.”

Stillmen spearheaded formation of the group after six people were arrested in a heroin distribution ring operating out of a home on the Kansas Road. People living in the home were driving to Massachusetts at least twice a month to bring back around 30 grams of heroin, which they broke down into smaller packets that sold for double the Massachusetts asking price.

Rural Maine is ripe for exploitation by heroin dealers, now that prescription pills have become scarcer due to stricter monitoring. And while large-scale distribution rings are as yet rare in Bridgton, the public should have no doubt that the problem is real, and growing, Stillman said.

“We want to get people up to speed on the problem,” he said. Quantifying how serious the problem is for Bridgton or individual neighboring towns has been difficult, however, since data is only available for Cumberland County as a whole. Yet ample evidence exists for anyone tracking the weekly police logs, he said.

“So much of the crime we deal with is fueled by drugs and alcohol,” Stillman said. “We know that currently there are addicts out there that are really struggling, and there needs to be some way to get them help if they want it.”

The Substance Abuse Coalition is comprised of people who deal with the opiate crisis on a daily basis, he said — clinicians, doctors, nurses, social workers and counselors. Its membership includes Drs. Jen and Craig Smith of North Bridgton Family Practice and Dr. Peter Leighton of Bridgton Internal Medicine, all of whom are certified to prescribe Suboxone, considered one of the most effective drugs for treating opiate addiction. Several Bridgton Hospital professionals are also involved, as are representatives from Tri County Mental Health Services.

“We have some very talented people,” Stillman said.

The coalition’s mission statement reads as follows: “The Lake Region Substance Abuse Coalition is a collection of concerned citizens who will help facilitate the prevention of opiate abuse among youth, determine barriers to and facilitate treatment for opiate abuse, and educate the community in order to promote understanding of and treatment for opiate abuse among our neighbors.”

Stillman said the group has developed a referral list for treatment options that has been turned over to the Community Navigator who works out of the Bridgton Community Center. That person also has been a regular attendee at coalition meetings, he said.

“There are resources out there, but if they don’t have insurance it makes things a lot more difficult,” he said.

Stillman’s focus and passion in the group’s efforts has been on educating children of the dangers of experimenting with whatever drugs are kept in the home. “The problem for several years is that the kids aren’t scared of (drugs),” he said. “Their mother got them from a doctor, so they must be safe.”

He is particularly dismayed by the current trend toward legalization of marijuana, which he considers a gateway drug, often leading to opiate abuse.

“I’m disgusted with what’s going on nationwide with marijuana.” He said. “It’s a joke, but people are supporting it.”

The coalition is also working with SAD 61 schools, and hopes to have its doctors give talks to students in health classes. Recovering addicts will eventually be invited to become involved in the coalition’s activities, said Stillman, who hopes that younger recovering addicts will step forward with a willingness to share their story with students in elementary and middle schools.

“How big the problem is here, we really don’t know. The best we can hope for is through education, we can reduce the demand” for opiates, he said.

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