February 5, 2013

Posters warn addicts about potent Portland heroin

City health officials say that advising how to avoid an overdose is different from encouraging use.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Public health workers are distributing posters warning heroin users about two types of the drug that are available in Portland and have caused an unusually high number of overdoses.

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The city's posters alert users to heroin dangers and suggest ways to lessen the chances of a fatal overdose.

The city's Overdose Prevention Project and The Portland Exchange, programs in the Health and Human Services Department, have developed a poster that alerts users to the danger and suggests ways to reduce their chances of a fatal overdose, including using a small "tester shot" to gauge the drug's potency.

The city announced last week that unusually powerful heroin has led to at least 13 overdoses since Dec. 1, two of them fatal.

Officials say the overdoses have been attributed to pure black tar heroin, which is from New York City and is chunky, sticky and dark brown, and "China White," which is cut with prescription drugs.

Ronni Katz, coordinator of Portland's substance abuse prevention program, explained the rationale for advocating techniques that enable illegal drug use.

"Every heroin addict is a human being who is someone's friend, brother, sister, mother, father, child and beyond," she said. "Our whole goal is to keep them alive and help them find a road to wellness and find a fulfilling life and be here for a while."

The approach has been criticized by some people through social media as possibly encouraging illegal drug use, she said, but the advice on the posters targets people who already are addicted.

Outreach workers have been distributing the posters through the city's needle exchange program and putting them in places that addicts are known to frequent, she said. The posters aren't being distributed to the general public.

The posters urge heroin users to avoid mixing drugs and avoid using heroin when they're alone. The posters also suggest reclining on one side to avoid choking on vomit.

Any sign of overdose, like an inability to wake the user or loud snoring caused by respiratory distress, should prompt a live-saving call to 911, Katz said.

The city's ambulances carry the drug Narcan, which rescue workers can use to quickly counteract heroin's effects, she said.

Mark Publicker, a doctor at the Mercy Recovery Center, said, "There is no safe way to use heroin," but there are many inexperienced users in Maine and they might not understand the potentially fatal dangers of various types of heroin.

Publicker said a similar batch of strong heroin came through Portland several months ago.

Publicker said plenty of users seek treatment, but the state has nowhere near the treatment spaces it needs to meet the demand. Even people with private insurance typically must go out of state to get residential treatment, he said.

Katz said public health workers have conducted similar information campaigns since the Overdose Prevention Project was launched in 2003, during a wave of methadone-related overdose deaths.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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