February 23

Drug treatment funding in Maine is falling, but demand is greater than ever

The number of people seeking treatment for opiate addiction has increased 15 percent since 2010; funding has decreased by 7 percent during the same period.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Daniel Vassie Jr., recovering heroin addict from New Gloucester

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Steve Danzig, a licensed drug and alcohol counselor in Windham, refers his clients out of state for inpatient treatment because there are far fewer options in Maine.

Danzig knows plenty about addiction. He’s been a counselor now for more than decade and has been in recovery himself for 16 years. Danzig progressed through many different drugs before finding heroin. His rock bottom came when he was living at a train station in New Jersey.

“There was a moment where I was standing near the train platform and I was ready to step in front of that train,” he said.

Instead, Danzig called for help. He made his way to Maine and got clean at Serenity House. Then he went back to school to help others. When he meets with clients and sees their desperation and hopelessness, he remembers his own experience.

He has a wife and three kids and a stable life but said he has to work at it every day.

“My drug addiction seems like a lifetime ago but it’s also fresh. The disease is still there,” he said. “It doesn’t take time off.”

Danzig said he joined a state task force a few years ago that was convened after Maine policymakers decided to aggressively address the state’s prescription drug problem, but stopped participating when he saw the direction it was headed. A 2012 report by the task force identified four core initiatives: drug collection and disposal; diversion alerts; education; and prescription monitoring. The focus was almost entirely on attacking the supply of drugs.

That approach has worked to an extent. The number of narcotic prescriptions filled in Maine decreased from 1.39 million in 2010 to 1.08 million in 2012, the last year for which figures are available.

But it does not address demand.

Opiates change your brain, Danzig said. Sometimes irreversibly. That is the reason substance abuse professionals use methadone and suboxone to maintain someone’s brain function during treatment for addiction. Sometimes, a patient has the dose tapered gradually until it’s no longer needed, but that timeline varies depending on the severity of addiction.

One area where the increase in heroin use has been seen most is enrollment in the state’s needle exchange program. Needle exchanges allow drug users who inject to drop off dirty needles at one of five approved locations in exchange for new, clean needles. The programs operate without state or federal funding.

In 2010, 1,548 people were enrolled in the program. That number jumped to 4,333 in 2013, and the number of needles exchanged increased from about 160,000 in 2010 to more than 500,000 in 2013.

Needle exchange programs have been controversial for years but advocates say they are a proven way to help combat infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis and they get dirty needles off the streets.

And, needle exchange can lead to treatment. In 2013, Maine’s needle exchange providers referred 372 clients for treatment.


Sayra Small of Durham wants to see better access to drug treatment because it saved her life.

She will be three years sober in March, but it took her more than a decade to get there.

She started when she was 19, discovering OxyContin and oxycodone while working at a restaurant in Bar Harbor.

Small used both off and on for years. But once those got too expensive, she switched to heroin. The needle didn’t scare her.

“If I was going to be bad, I was going to be the worst,” Small said.

She saw friends die from overdoses and others contract diseases from dirty needles. Even that didn’t stop her.

“What people don’t understand is: Drugs were not my problem,” Small said. “Life was my problem. Drugs were my solution.”

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Additional Photos

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Steve Danzig, drug counselor in Windham and a former addict

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Sayra Small, recovering heroin addict from Durham

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Pharmacist Jim Pearce fills a suboxone prescription at Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program in Boston last year. Suboxone is an opiate replacement therapy drug used to help treat opiate cravings and withdrawal. Drug treatment officials say addicts often have their doses of suboxone or methadone tapered gradually until they no longer need it, but that timeline can vary depending on the severity of one’s addiction.

File Photo/Reuters

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