The current drug crisis is viewed as one of the top problems facing the state, with six in 10 Mainers saying they know someone who has either used heroin or abused prescribed opiate painkillers within the past five years.

A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram Poll of 609 registered voters conducted this month confirmed what many have experienced: The problem is affecting, and in some cases devastating, more and more families.

“People’s opinions definitely change when they are impacted by something,” said Lindsey Smith, a research associate with the Cutler Institute at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service who has studied the drug crisis. “I’m almost surprised more people didn’t say they were affected by this, because it’s so pervasive.”

In a state of about 1.3 million people, 60 percent means that roughly 780,000 people have seen the crisis up close. That is considerably higher than the 44 percent in a recent Kaiser Health national survey who said they knew someone who abused heroin or opiates. Among those under age 49 in Maine, more than two-thirds know someone who has abused heroin or opiates.

“I watched my best friend go into rehab. He was clean for a while, but now he’s relapsed,” said Jonas Nicoloff, 25, who lives in Portland. “It’s hard. I think once it affects you personally, you start to care about it a little more.”

The Press Herald/Telegram poll, conducted June 15-21 by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, also found that 81 percent of people viewed the drug crisis as very serious.

“Do you know someone who has used heroin or abused painkillers in the past 5 years?”

INTERACTIVE: Christian MilNeil | @vigorousnorth

Yet while there is little disagreement over the severity of the problem, there appears to be a divide on what is driving it.

Asked to identify the primary cause of Maine’s heroin crisis, poll respondents’ top answers were: over-prescribing of prescription painkillers, 25 percent; drug dealers, 21 percent; the disease of addiction, 18 percent; and moral failings, 13 percent. And when those results are filtered by party affiliation, things change considerably.

“I guess it’s easy to say there is a problem, but quantifying it or pinpointing what is causing it, that’s a little harder,” said Elizabeth Crawford, 44, of Presque Isle.

CALL FOR ACTION, SPLIT OVER CAUSES

Last year, 272 Mainers died from drug overdoses, a record high, and all but four were attributed to heroin, fentanyl or pharmaceutical opiates such as Oxycontin. Heroin deaths alone increased from seven in 2011 to 107 last year.

The staggering number of deaths has prompted an urgent call for state lawmakers to take action. Although some progress has been made in cracking down on drug dealers – a top priority for Gov. Paul LePage – and in improving access to Narcan, which reverses the effects of opiate overdoses, a shortage of treatment facilities persists. Many addicts have trouble obtaining treatment, especially if they don’t have health insurance.

The Press Herald/Telegram poll results seem to echo why Maine lawmakers have struggled to fully address the problem.

Among Republican respondents, 30 percent said drug dealers were the biggest cause of heroin use, but only 14 percent of Democrats felt that way. Twenty-one percent of Republicans saw moral failing as a major cause, compared with 5 percent of Democrats. Over-prescribing of drugs was cited by 30 percent of Democrats, but only 17 percent of Republicans.

One of the poll respondents, 58-year-old Robert, who lives in Jefferson and declined to give his last name, said he doesn’t know anyone personally who has struggled with drug addiction, but he has seen the effects. He thinks drug dealers are most to blame.

“We need to get rid of them, not slap them on the hand,” he said. “As for the people who are addicted, I don’t know that we can keep giving them suboxone or methadone. If it really helps, I don’t mind, but I don’t want to be subsidizing another crutch.”

INTERACTIVE: Christian MilNeil | @vigorousnorth

Buffy Morrissette, 48, has two family members who have struggled with addiction, and she sees the problem a little differently.

“I just don’t think people have enough options for treatment,” said Morrissette, who lives in Poland and runs a small business. “This is a disease and Gov. LePage and others are treating it like a crime.”

People with a higher level of education were more likely to view addiction as a disease, while the less educated put more blame on drug dealers. Mainers with higher incomes also were more likely to see addiction as a disease.

“What sticks out to me is the number of people who still view drug addiction as a moral failing,” said Smith, the public health researcher at USM’s Muskie School.

Emily Feinstein, director of health, law and policy for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, agreed.

“The myth that addiction is a moral failing is one of the biggest barriers to progress we face,” she said.

BIGGEST IMPACT, TREATMENT OPTIONS

Asked to label the most important problem in Maine among eight individual options, 12 percent of respondents said drug abuse, third behind only jobs and the economy (33 percent) and Gov. LePage (18 percent).

However, only 4 percent of Republicans polled viewed drugs as the most important problem, compared with 10 percent of Democrats and 18 percent of independent voters.

Women also were more likely than men to say drugs were the biggest problem – 14 percent to 9 percent. People aged 18-34 and 35-49 were much more likely to say that drugs are the most important problem than those over 50.

“We’re really getting to a point where few people are not touched by addiction in some way,” Feinstein said.

Nicoloff, whose generation is among the hardest-hit by the drug crisis, said people are only now starting to talk about it openly.

“I think with most social issues, community outreach is the biggest thing that spurs changes,” he said.

The police chief in Gloucester, Massachusetts, is credited with helping break down the barrier of treating drug use as a disease rather than viewing it as criminal behavior. The Angel program started last summer by Chief Leonard Campanello has been replicated by dozens of communities across the country, including several in Maine.

A bipartisan bill passed by Maine lawmakers and signed by the governor in December split $4.8 million in new funding between drug enforcement and treatment, but many felt that was just a first step. Organizations and agencies that provide substance abuse treatment or services have come together, but they admit they will only be as successful as resources allow.

“The evidence supports that expanding MAT (medication-assisted treatment) is the best thing we can do, but it’s not happening and, even when it is, people can’t afford it without insurance,” Smith said. “We should be approaching the drug crisis as a public health crisis. There is no way we have the resources to handle the problem right now.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen this coming for a while, but we’ve been really reactive. And when we do things in a reactionary manner, they aren’t always fully thought out.”

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram Poll was conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center on June 15-21, 2016. Results are based on landline and cellular telephone interviews with 609 randomly selected Maine adults and 475 randomly selected likely Maine voters. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points for all adults and plus or minus 4.5 percentage points for likely voters.