Dealing with the state’s opiate epidemic has become a big part of the job description for local police over the last decade. No matter what the size or wealth of the town or the police force, the challenge remains the same.
But in some communities police are working with doctors, mental health workers, former drug users and business leaders to try to find ways to get people into treatment as a way to cut off demand for drugs and reduce the supply. The western Maine resort town of Bridgton is one such place.
This is the first in a series of reports we’re calling “Recovery in a Small Town.”
It’s a Friday night in Bridgton and Officer Phil Jones is on his regular patrol.
“So we’re gonna come up here on the right and I’ll show you one of our areas where we have a lot of drug trafficking and drug problems,” he says during a recent ride-along.
Jones says evidence of the heroin problem can no longer be overlooked.
“We’re just seeing more of it. We’re seeing more people carrying it. Not large amounts, not huge bricks of it necessarily, but there’s more of it on the street,” he says. “I’ll get calls throughout the day to come pick up a dirty needle on the side of a road. I do a lot of work with the schools and you’d be surprised how much kids will talk and sometimes describe something that sounds like illegal drug use going on. They don’t know it. They just talk about what they see at home.”
Though it’s part of Cumberland County, Bridgton is rural — 60 square miles of rolling hills, farmland, lakes and ponds. And in the nine years he’s been on the force, Jones says Bridgton’s downtown has doubled in size from one stoplight to two.
“We were a two-diner town for a while and now we’ve got some neat businesses, restaurants coming to town,” he says. “I think they’re even putting an oyster bar in.”
The town’s normal population is about 5,000, but it swells in the summertime when seasonal residents return to their lakeside cabins. In the winter people come to ski and snowmobile. There’s an influx of visitors who often stay in motels and inns.
Jones and the seven other officers on the force do their best to try to find the drugs that are coming into town. Several have also been trained to administer Narcan, a drug that can reverse the effects of overdose.
But Jones says enforcement and emergency intervention won’t solve the opiate problem.
“You need to have treatment. We need to be doing our job in law enforcement to be finding the drugs and working on investigations and charging people appropriately, but there’s still addictions, and if someone gets locked up for possession of heroin and they get out of jail and they’re still addicted, then the problem still exists,” he says.
Most of Jones’ work involves routine calls and traffic stops. But the department also works investigations with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.
Over the weekend, the MDEA arrested two people in the nearby town of Fryeburg for importing heroin for distribution. Police say the two were traveling to Massachusetts to purchase heroin to sell in western Maine.
Last fall police broke up a similar ring at a house in Bridgton where six people were arrested.
“Every week or so they would go down to one of the largest cities in New Hampshire and make a significant purchase and they would come up here and re-package the heroin,” says Richard Stillman, Bridgton’s police chief. “They brought up about 30 grams of heroin. They break it down into small packets. And that’s who else was in the house at the time were the smaller dealers that were coming up that are probably addicts themselves but deal to support their habit. And they were coming up to get their portion of it so that they could distribute their own just around the area.”
Stillman, who previously worked at a police department in Massachusetts, says packets of heroin sell for about $10 in Boston. Here in Maine they fetch almost twice as much, so there’s quite a profit to be made.
“Demand for heroin is so high, the money that can be made from selling heroin is so great that we’re not going to make any real difference until we can work on that demand,” he says.
And the only way to reduce demand, says Stillman, is through education of elementary and middle school kids, and through treatment.
“You know, the biggest problem I have is if somebody is struggling with addiction and they want help and we can’t give it to them because they don’t have insurance or they don’t have access, that’s a real failure of a community, I think,” he says.
A failure, says Stillman, that has to be fixed as quickly as possible. To that end, he and several other concerned citizens recently created the Greater Bridgton Substance Abuse Coalition to explore the barriers to treatment and promote understanding of the disease of addiction.
Tomorrow, a local physician who is part of the effort explains why his work in medication-assisted treatment has become a personal calling.