PARIS — As he stood up in front of a crowd of roughly 50 people — law enforcement, health care workers, Oxford Hills residents and even his mom — 20-year-old Patrick Valeri said he wants to stop using heroin.
He’s called just about every rehab in the state of Maine and unless he’s addicted to alcohol or benzodiazepines, or is suicidal, they won’t take him, he said.
“I am not suicidal. I just want help,” Valeri said.
This is what he vocalized at the town hall-style meeting on the growing heroin and opiate problem in Oxford Hills on Thursday, Aug. 6 at the American Legion in Paris. Interim Police Chief Jeff Lange called together the forum so the public and panel of law enforcement and health experts could weigh in on how to combat what some call an epidemic. Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant said in 2014, there were 104 calls countywide for the entire year related to heroin. So far this year, there’s been 100, and there’s still months to go.
“The biggest one in the county right now is the town of Rumford and they’re extremely high,” he said about heroin incidents. “The numbers are going up.”
Catherine Bell of Crooked River Counseling told the group that opiate addiction is extremely different from other addictions and much more severe.
“We really need the help from the medical profession to have more providers that are willing to treat our population with medications so they don’t engage in criminal activity to get drugs (so they won’t be sick),” she said, confirming Valeri’s story about the difficulty in getting people treatment, noting there’s long waiting lists. “We need more doctors who are willing to treat this as a serious illness just like if a person had depression and required medication.”
The law enforcement representatives agreed the focus needs to be on the people who are dealing drugs, not busting the addicts who are ill.
“Our major focus is to interrupt … the suppliers,” Scott Pelletier of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency said. “We’re not … trying to fill the jails with local residents who are battling addiction problems. … We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”
Valeri said he got pulled over about 20 times during the six-month span because he’s known to police as a drug addict. He thinks law enforcement need to walk the walk when it comes to apprehending drug dealers, saying they should go after the kingpins who are profiting from people’s addictions.
“These people are the lowest of the low,” he said.
Norway resident Stephen MacDonald agreed drug dealers need to be busted. He told the group he buried his 33-year-old nephew three weeks ago from a drug overdose.
“His supply source was so strong he put the needle in his arm and his heart stopped,” McDonald said, as he snapped his fingers.
Sharon Durham of West Paris came to the forum to share the experiences she and her family have had with her 33-year-old son, Jeremy Beane, who’s been addicted to opiates for 15 years. He was recently arrested again — after spending more than three years in jail because of his drug problem — for burglarizing someone’s home to feed his habit. Now he faces between eight and 10 years behind bars.
“I had dreams at night of a police officer knocking at my door telling me he was dead because it was so real. … The family is just drained. We do not know what to do,” she said, noting she’s angry and frustrated with her son for not getting help.
“Don’t give up on your son. I didn’t give up on my daughter,” Oxford County Sheriff Sgt. Matthew Baker told Durham.
He shared a story of how five months ago, he came home from work late and got in an argument with his daughter. He had to go back to work and when he returned, he experienced every parent’s worst nightmare:
“She was passed out on the toilet from a … heroin fentanyl overdose, she died. … So don’t give up on him,” Baker implored.
Lange of the Paris Police Department said he wanted to form a task force and Durham agreed to be on it. District Attorney Andrew Robinson also volunteered to be part of the effort. Valeri agreed to join after panel members said they wanted him on the task force, regardless of his heroin addiction.
Attorney Sarah Glynn talked about different forms of drug courts in Rumford, Lewiston and Augusta. But participating poses many challenges for those battling addiction locally in Oxford Hills.
“That requires people to move. People are already challenged for transportation, already challenged for money. Why don’t we do something here in Oxford County?” she asked.
Robinson said there’s no better way to work with drug addicts than through drug court, but noted it’s a resource-intensive endeavor, as it requires a judge, case manager, prosecutor, counselors and defense attorneys.
State Rep. Lloyd “Skip” Herrick said heroin was a problem when he was sheriff and it’s getting worse.
“If it’s not looked at as a crisis and handled that way, 10 years from now, we’re going to be worse off,” he said, noting a directory of resources needs to be compiled to give to addicts and their friends and family members.
Valeri asked if any area police officers carry naloxone on them, which is a drug used to reverse the effects of opiate-fueled overdoses. Lange said they do not, but could look into carrying it.
“It is a Band-Aid approach, but it is a tool we can use to save somebody’s life,” Lange said.
Bell, of Crooked River Counseling, is encouraged by the discussion held during the forum and said people need to keep the momentum going and not hide their addictions. Anna Black, of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, said the task force should focus on seven or eight things, including education efforts and being proactive against the problem.
Another heroin forum would be held at a future date, Lange said.