More than 200 people attended a candlelight vigil Monday evening in Portland’s Monument Square to remember those who have died from drug overdoses and to spread the message that addiction can be overcome.

Monday’s vigil and a march through the Bayside neighborhood were organized by The I Am Here Outreach Team, a group of seven local organizations that uses community outreach and education to help people overcome addiction. The team is a member of the Maine Harm Reduction Alliance, a statewide organization dedicated to fighting addiction through education, advocacy and action.

Organizers of Overdose Awareness Day say that Maine and the nation are in the midst of a drug epidemic. The Portland event was part of International Overdose Awareness Day, which is held in locations around the world on Aug. 31 each year. The international event was created in 2001 by the Penington Institute, a nonprofit Australian-based health organization.

“It’s extreme (drug overdoses) right now and it’s here in Maine,” said Niki Curtis of Portland, a recovering addict.

Curtis, 43, who has been drug-free for three years, works as a peer support person at the Portland Recovery Community Center. “I’ve never seen it this bad.”

Curtis, who was living in Presque Isle at the time, overdosed on bath salts and opiates. Curtis said she will never forget that day – Feb. 23, 2012 – because someone helped her survive by giving her Narcan.

“Too many people are dying,” Portland Mayor Michael Brennan told the crowd.

Brennan, a licensed clinical social worker who worked for two years in substance abuse counseling at the Maine Youth Center in South Portland, said, “It’s important for us to come together as a community and to not cast blame, and for us to work collectively to bring people back from the brink of addiction.”

During the vigil, organizers read the names of 63 people who have died from drug overdoses.

In the 24-hour period starting at 8 a.m. on July 31, Portland officials reported 14 overdoses from heroin and other opiates. Five of those people were in cardiac arrest by the time paramedics arrived, and two died.

Heroin abuse and overdose rates are up sharply in Maine and across the country, reflecting the increased availability of the low-cost street drug at a time when prescription opiate painkillers are getting harder to find and more expensive to buy. Many users become addicted to painkillers first, then turn to heroin to feed their addictions and avoid withdrawal.

In Maine, the number of heroin users seeking treatment has tripled, from 1,115 in 2010 to 3,463 in 2014, according to the state.

The number of Maine residents who died of drug overdoses in 2014 hit a record high, according to an analysis released in May by the Maine Attorney General’s Office.

The analysis, conducted by Marcella Sorg of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine along with the chief medical examiner, found that 208 people in Maine died of drug overdoses – an increase of 18 percent over 2013, when 176 peopled died of drug overdoses. The drugs ranged from cocaine to heroin and other opioids. The number of deaths from heroin alone jumped from 34 in 2013 to 57 in 2014.

“Not one county, not one community is untouched by this scourge,” Attorney General Janet Mills said in a news release at the time.

Andrew Kiezulas, 34, of Portland is a recovering addict who attended Monday’s vigil. He now attends the University of Southern Maine, majoring in chemistry and math. He hopes to become a teacher.

A few years ago, he found his roommate dead from an overdose. Another friend was among the 14 people who overdosed a month ago. That friend died as well.

“I’ve lost a lot of people in my life to the disease of addiction,” said Kiezulas, who works a volunteer at the Portland Recovery Community Center. “In a lot of ways, we as a society don’t feel that addiction affects us, but it does. The bottom line is, overdoses and substance abuse are a community illness and need a community solution to fix it.”

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