October 16, 2011

Painkillers in Maine: A cure that came with a curse

Maine’s out-of-control pill habit is among the worst in the nation, and all of us bear the costs of its abuse.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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A pharmacist counts out Vicodin pills at a pharmacy in Portland last week. Maine was one of the first states to see an explosion of painkiller addiction and it remains among the worst states in the nation for pill abuse. The human and societal costs associated with the epidemic – almost 1,400 Maine people have died from pharmaceutical drug overdoses in the past decade and thousands more need treatment for addiction – are staggering, experts say.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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PAINKILLERS IN MAINE: Stories, video interviews and links to resources.

Teens and others quickly figured out how to crush the pills and snort the powder to get the full euphoric rush of the synthetic opiates, which are as powerful and addictive as heroin and morphine.

As a rural state at the end of the distribution network, Maine didn’t have a lot of experience with hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

But now, here was a drug delivered to every community in pure, pharmaceutical-grade, precisely measured doses.

Experienced drug users loved the pills because they could trust them to work. The inexperienced considered them safer than street drugs.

And there was a ready appetite for the pills, especially among teens and among adults wanting to wash away depression or escape the stress of unemployment and financial insecurity.

Police, meanwhile, were all but powerless to keep the pills out of the wrong hands.

“Drugs used to come from foreign countries and people would smuggle them in,” said Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross. “Today, they are in the medicine cabinets of our homes.”


At first, prescription opiates – also called opioids – give a warm, on-top-of-the-world feeling, users say. Pretty soon you need larger amounts to get high.

Then one day you feel like you have a horrible flu – pain, vomiting, sweats and chills – and you realize it’s because you missed a dose.

Opiate receptors in your brain, spine and intestines have gone into a kind of shock.

Opiate withdrawal doesn’t kill you, but addicts say you wish it would.

“You don’t have a care in the world when you’re on it. And when you can’t get it, it’s the worst experience in the world,” said Chuck Lawson, a recovering addict in Portland.

Some addicts say it took them as little as two weeks of regular use to get hooked.

The extreme highs and lows physically change an addict’s brain. Getting the next dose becomes the first thing – and sometimes the only thing – on an addict’s mind.

Some addicts, chasing the high and trying to avoid withdrawal, mix painkillers with Xanax or other anti-anxiety pills or dissolve the pills and inject them directly into their veins. Both push addicts closer to a potentially fatal overdose.

“Once you got past a certain point, there is no going back,” said 31-year-old Nicole Martin, a recovering addict who injected the drugs and used heroin when she couldn’t get pills. “Anything you say you haven’t done yet, you will do eventually.”


Finding the drugs is rarely a problem, addicts say.

Users share them, buy them, steal them, forge prescriptions for them and, if desperate enough, trade sex for them. Some go out of state to get the drugs, including to Florida’s so-called “pill mills” – clinics that offer painkiller prescriptions for cash.

Many addicts get prescriptions from their local doctors – sometimes for real pain and often not.
Some are even bold enough to file false police reports of pill theft so they can convince their doctors to give them more.

Those with their own prescriptions get their pills on the cheap – MaineCare and private insurance cover most of the cost.

And they quickly learn they can sell their pills for as much as $30 to $100 apiece depending on the type and strength. Addicts buying their pills on the street can spend $100 to $400 a day to feed their habits.

That gets very expensive, said Blake Carver of Portland.

Carver, now 24, was a teenager when he started breaking into houses looking for money to buy “Oxys,” he said. And he always cleaned out the medicine cabinets in the homes he robbed.

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“It’s extraordinary how deep this epidemic has gone,” Dr. Mark Publicker, an addiction specialist in Westbrook, says of prescription pain-pill abuse. “It was eating its way through the culture, and it was diagnosed too late.”

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


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