REGION — This week, the Western Maine Addiction Recovery Initiative (WMARI) consortium is fighting substance use disorder on a new front, area high schools.

Monday, recovery advocates spent the morning at Oxford Hill Comprehensive High School addressing freshmen students in focused sessions, with a school-wide webinar streaming in all classrooms featuring Laura Stack of Johnny’s Ambassadors, whose son Johnny died by suicide in 2019 after years of using concentrated THC products.

On Wednesday, the same stakeholders held the same event, dubbed SUD Prevention Day, at Telstar High School. Earlier this year WMARI and its consortium partners visited Dirigo High School in Dixfield and then Sacopee Valley High School in Hiram.

Youth intervention is just one of the programs WMARI has been able to initiate since last September when it, along with its partners River Valley Healthy Communities Coalition, the Larry Labonte Recovery Center, Common Ground Counseling, the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department, the Oxford Hills School District-MSAD 17, and MaineHealth/Western Maine Health (Healthy Oxford Hills), was awarded a multi-year award from the Health Services and Resources Administration (HRSA)- Rural Communities Opioid Response Program (RCORP).

Dr. Paul Vinsel of Tri-County Mental Health Services spoke with students about how the brain is affected by substance use during Oxford Comprehensive High School’s SUD Prevention Day Monday. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

Lynley Turkington is OHCHS’ substance misuse counselor. She works with youth affected by family substance use and who are using themselves.

“Our consortium entered into a formal collaboration after getting this HRSA grant,” WMARI Director Kari Taylor explained about the effort to go into western Maine high school prevention programs.


“This is the first event of this magnitude. In December our working group determined to develop content. Each person worked to identify ways to engage students about prevention using their individual areas of experience and expertise. Our goal was to make our outreach evidence-based and move beyond the ‘just say no to drugs’ aspect of SUD education.”

The event is modeled on Governor Janet Mill’s Maine Opioid Summit, which has been held annually since she took office in 2019. High school freshmen are the primary participants but all students take part in some of the day’s activities.

“Marijuana, alcohol and nicotine through vaping are the most relevant substances we see adolescents using,” OHCHS’ Substance Misuse Councelor Lynley Turkington said of the criteria that informed presentation topics.

Representatives from Healthy Oxford Hills led breakout sessions about how marijuana and nicotine use can affect the physical and mental health of youth who use them.

Law enforcement officials from the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office and Maine Drug Enforcement Agency talked with students about what they see on a daily basis when responding to situations involving illegal drugs, including arrests and overdoses, and the impact that addiction has on the people they deal with.

Several people who are in addiction recovery spoke about their personal journeys through SUD, including youth with the Portland-based Students Empowered to End Dependency (SEED). Other sessions focused on recognizing warning signs of SUD, supporting loved ones with SUD and developing skills to support friends and peers who are using substances, as well as tools for self-care including yoga and using creativity and introspection to foster a sense of internal health.


Paul Vinsel, a board-certified addiction specialist physician with Tri-County Mental Health spoke with students about the science of addiction, talking about how neurotransmitters operate in the brain and how chemical substances interfere with or even block brain function.

During a webinar presentation to Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, drug awareness advocate Laura Stack shared an illustration depicting the last conversation she had with her son Johnny before he committed suicide in 2019.

During the Johnny’s Ambassadors webinar, Stack told students that neither she nor her son understood how much marijuana use had changed from the times she had smoked it during her youth to the highly THC-concentrated products of today.

She explained that where a marijuana joint 25 years ago contained about five milligrams of THC, someone today using THC through vaping or dabbing will be exposed to potentially 800 milligrams for each product.

“When Johnny went away to college, he lost his scholarship within two weeks,” she said. “He texted me that he and his roommate had been dabbing non-stop for two weeks and he felt like killing himself.”

Despite multiple inpatient treatments, Johnny Stack continued to struggle with SUD and mental health. During his last encounter with his mother he expressed regret and apologized that he had not listened to her when she had warned him after his first experience with marijuana about its dangers. Three days later, Stack said, her son committed suicide.

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