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Drug Deaths: Opioid Epidemic Worse Than Ever, Maine Advocates Say

Susan Sharon
Maine Public
Sherry Monteith places flowers on the steps of Lewiston City Hall Monday.

The number of people dying from drug overdoses in Maine this year is on pace with last year, when 370 lives were lost. Now, some advocates are calling for stronger local action to address the opioid epidemic.

On Monday morning, advocates, family members and friends of people affected by substance use disorder sang as they placed 38 roses on the step of Lewiston City Hall — one for each city resident who has died from a drug overdose in the past two years.

Some at the event say they lost loved ones from surrounding communities. Sherry Monteith says her 30-year-old sister Sarah Cookson, who lived in Farmingdale, became addicted to opioids after undergoing surgery.

Credit Courtesy Sherry Monteith
Farmingdale native Sarah Marie Cookson died in December of an overdose of opioids, prescribed following a surgery, says Cookson's sister Sherry Monteith.

Monteith says she tried to find help, but her sister didn’t have health insurance.

“That’s why, when we went to treatment programs, we could not afford any of the options. One cost $15,000. We were told to take out a second mortgage on our home to afford it. That put us in a position of having to choose between the financial security of my own two children and the health of my sister — a choice no one should have to make. We decided we couldn’t afford it, and thought we had time to figure out other options for Sarah,” she says.

A few months later, Sarah died from an overdose. Monteith wants leaders at the municipal level to do more to help people with substance use disorder.

“I’m speaking today in hopes my story will urge elected officials to take proactive action to assist those who need treatment now, and avoid another tragedy like the loss our family has experienced,” she says.

Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public
Maine Public
Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin at Lewiston City Hall Monday.

“Even though every community in the state has been affected by this epidemic, we still have not built the political will to truly address it,” says Ben Chin, who is running for mayor of Lewiston this November.

Chin criticized the city for failing to prioritize the opioid epidemic and says officials should form a stakeholder group to take action.

Marty O’Brien of Grace Street Recovery Services says it’s clear that new strategies are needed.

“We’re here today not to bring up what our community isn’t doing, but how we can join together with the community to provide some solutions,” he says.

Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public
Maine Public
Flowers on the steps of Lewiston City Hall Monday.

Tracey Bouchard, 29, of Brunswick is currently in treatment at Grace Street. She came to the Lewiston event because in the past month, she has lost three friends to drug overdose deaths — including a friend she had known since elementary school.

“Going to his funeral, and watching his parents, and his three small children, it’s just so sad,” she says.

Bouchard says she’s fortunate to be in treatment, and that everyone who needs it should have access, too.

Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald did not respond to a request for comment.

Correction: Sarah Cookson had a 13-year-old niece, not daughter.

This story was originally published Sept. 18, 2017 at 12:33 p.m. ET.