SOUTH PORTLAND — Nearly 100 people attended a community forum in South Portland on Wednesday evening to talk about the city and state’s growing drug epidemic and steps that could help addicts recover while putting traffickers in jail.

Organizers of the heroin/opiate forum – one of at least 10 that will be held statewide this year – said the ideas and recommendations that emerge from them will be presented to the Maine Opioid Collaborative Task Forces.

The task forces, which were created in September by U.S. Attorney Thomas Delahanty, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills and John Morris, Maine’s commissioner of Public Safety, will use the ideas raised at forums to develop a plan for dealing with the heroin epidemic.

“We can’t enforce our way out of this problem,” said Lt. Frank Clark of the South Portland Police Department.

Clark, who worked as a drug enforcement agent in the 1990s, was one of five panelists who spoke at the forum at the South Portland Community Center. Robbie Moulton, Scarborough’s Police Chief, was also on the panel along with recovering addict Matt Braun.

Clark and Moulton said their towns are on the drug pipeline. Dealers from New York and Massachusetts come to southern Maine and set up shop at one of the long line of hotels or motels that line Route 1 and are just off Interstate 295, the officers said.

Though both police departments train hospitality industry employees on how to recognize drug traffickers, the drug epidemic seems to be worsening.

Clark said South Portland officers arrested 13 people for heroin possession in 2015, compared to 7 in 2013. Emergency medical personnel administered naloxone, an overdose antidote, 72 times last year compared to just 32 times in 2013. Five opiate-related deaths in the city were reported in 2015, compared to just one in 2013.

“The numbers are not huge, but it’s still too many,” Clark said.

Clark said it is not unusual for heavy drug users to spend up to $840 day to support their habit – nearly $6,000 a week.

Moulton agrees with Clark that punishing drug users may not be the solution. Moulton said more needs to be done to help drug addicts recover.

His department established Operation Hope on October 1. The program, which Moulton says has been a success, encourages drug users to walk into the Scarborough Police Station where they can avoid arrest by surrendering any drugs in their possession and agreeing to seek help.

Moulton said those seeking help at the police station are referred to treatment programs by a group of volunteers known as ‘angels.’

Since October, Scarborough police have placed 114 addicts in treatment programs, some of which are located in other parts of the country, the chief said. The biggest obstacle to the diversion program is that many users don’t have insurance to pay for treatment.

“I certainly believe in enforcement but we are seeing things in our community that are just terrifying,” Moulton said. “The terrifying thing about heroin is how deadly it is, and how it can change the brain’s chemistry.”

Braun, who grew up in Cape Elizabeth, spoke with emotion about his addiction. The audience applauded after he told his story. Braun, who says he’s been clean for six years, said he is part of a group that calls itself Young People in Recovery.

Braun, who lived in a halfway house, said having a stable home environment and a supportive community helped him overcome his addiction.

“I didn’t get sober just to get sober. I got sober so that I could accomplish my dreams,” Braun said. “But I have had to spend years getting my life back on track.”


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