A street-level view of Maine’s drug epidemic
by Robin Rage
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.”
— Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”
My dog Bella and I will have been off the streets and out of the woods of Sherwood Forest for two years this September. But the rule remains: Keep putting one foot in front of the other, and try to do the right thing.
For your humble narrator, part of doing the right thing is not forgetting, so Bella and I stay pretty involved in the unhomed community. I work with the Holistic Recovery Project, facilitating peer-processing groups at Preble Street, at the needle-exchange program of Portland’s India Street Public Heath Center, and in the parks and other nooks and crannies around town. (Bella now has a Maine coon kitten, named Mrs. Havisham, who keeps her company when I’m off skulking about on my own.)
Every citizen of the Homeless Nation of Portland is a brave soldier, no matter how far down, no matter what their hustle. You know that feeling you get when the workday or school day is about to end and you just can’t wait to get home? On the street, we have the same feeling — we can’t wait to get home. But it ain’t gonna happen. The workday doesn’t end, the hyper-vigilance doesn’t end, but neither does the desire to get home.
What would you do? How would you cope with that?
I don’t know the exact rate of drug addiction among the homeless peeps of P-town, but I know it’s rare to find anyone living on the streets of Portland who isn’t on something. The street is a lot more tolerable if you have a drug that makes the grossly abnormal things occurring all around you seem normal.
I led a recovery circle at the Preb last fall. I remember looked around the table at all the strung-out faces and saying, “Holy Saint Pat, man! I mean, this is the Holistic Recovery Project, right? Is anybody here in any kind of recovery?” CeCe, who’d lived in the woods with me earlier that year, said, “I think that everybody should smoke pot.” This generated a general rumble of approval. “If only!” I said, in white-knuckled exasperation.
Earlier this spring, I trekked to Preble Street from my place on the East End. I followed the dirt trail from the community garden in Kennedy Park, across the two northbound lanes of Franklin Street, over the snow mountain in the median, then across the two southbound lanes of Franklin. City-planning types have a term for these shortcuts made by people who prefer not to stick to the safety of sidewalks and crossing signals: desire paths. Two blocks south, there’s another one that runs between the county and federal courthouse buildings and the office of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, on Federal Street.
The desire path I was on continues between the Franklin Towers housing project and the chain-link fence around Earle W. Noyes & Sons’ moving company. There, in the long shadow of the tallest building in Maine, I saw a group of friends huddled in a corner, and I saw flames and spoons. “Rage!” yelled Jean, beckoning me over. His bonhomie calmed the initial panic of his three compatriots, who smiled at me sleepily.
Heroin’s a social drug, I observed. “Just like any other drug, I suppose,” said Squirrel, one of Jean’s impromptu crew. “You get to this place and there’s somebody else there in that same place, and you enjoy it more. It’s like you’re in on the same joke that nobody else is gonna get.”
I didn’t get it. I’ve never abused opiates. Alcohol is my terminal-velocity drug. In fact, I just got out of detox three days before I started writing this. But I’ll be fine. Swear.
For all its benefits, the resource center at Preble Street can be a dangerous place. On one hand, the staff there feed us, give us showers, phone access, socks, advocacy, counseling and community. On the other hand, I always advise those trying to stay clean to stay away from Preble Street. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen someone newly released from jail or rehab, and they’re all pink-skinned and they’ve put on weight, they’re lucid and smiling and they swear they’re never gonna touch that shit again. A week later, you bump into them at the Preb and their eyes are hazy and they look tired. At that point they still swear they’re clean, but two weeks later they’re gone.
I went to the Preb to try to talk to some junkies for this story, which is not easy. The junkies there are always hustling — got no time for someone like me who’s not buying or selling. Luckily I found Kevin K., a fountain of knowledge. We sat in the dirt yard outside the center surrounded by seekers and hawkers, all with that intense, horror-show look in their eyes.
“Imagine this,” started Kevin. “You get addicted to pharmaceuticals. You crush them, snort them, shoot them, get insanely high. Then, one day, you can’t crush them anymore. What do you do? Hopefully you still have MaineCare, so that you can get on methadone, or Suboxone.”
“The real sick part,” he added, “is that they got us hooked on pharmaceutical opiates, then hooked on Suboxone, then LePage cut off our MaineCare in 2012 so that we couldn’t afford the Suboxone. So we found, or returned to, Mother Heroin.”
A vicious cycle. The story of opiate abuse in Maine is a series of vicious cycles that go nowhere but down. So it’s really more like a spiral: people keep getting addicted, the drug companies and dealers keep getting richer, and the government keeps getting it wrong. Meanwhile, the peeps on your side of the window keep paying with cash and those on the other side pay with their lives.
It’s a death spiral.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. As I said, I’m not a junkie, but like a lot of us non-junkies, opiates have played a big part in my life. Let’s go back to Augusta, to the first (and last) time I got insanely high.
“Perhaps all pleasure is only relief.”
— William S. Burroughs
My father passed on from lymphoma (a nasty blend of cancer) on Valentine’s Day in the Year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Nine. One of the many things my industrious, rags-to-riches adopted pop left behind in the big house in Augusta were bottles of powerful medicines. I was 32, an alcoholic drug-and-alcohol counselor living in the family home (where most alcoholic, thirty-something, divorced drug-and-alcohol counselors live). It’s a good thing I didn’t care for pills, since I was still a certified residential medication aide, so I had access to a wide variety of them at work.
Trouble was, so did most of my coworkers.
One of my closest associates at the time was my immediate supervisor, this femme-fatale social worker transplanted from the Midwest. We called her Tombs, ’cause she loved our old New England cemeteries (she’d wander them for hours, make grave-rubbings, etc.) Unlike your humble narrator, Tombs was very interested in the pills Dad left behind — in particular, this tall white tower of a bottle labeled “OxyContin.” She had researched the brand online (the ’net was a wee bit clumsier back in the late ’90s, but it got the job done), and discovered that one could get quite high off these pills with a little manipulation.
So we got together at the Palace, as my family’s Victorian was called, to test it out. My saintly mother, and greatest enabler, was out of the house — probably down in Hallowell playing Boggle with her older sister. The writer online had instructed us to crush the pill, dissolve it in a spoonful of water, then snort the mixture up. Well, gotta be open to new experiences, right? And, after all, Tombs was my supervisor, so here we go.
We snorted the white, chalky chum and I got really high, then really sick, really quickly. I didn’t care for that. With alcohol, the high and the sick parts were at least separated by a foggy evening. I don’t recall what Tombs thought — she was never an addict, just a bit mental. Before moving to Memphis (with Tombs, which was another horror show), I gave the rest of the “Oxys,” as they were soon known, to another drug-and-alcohol counselor. Apparently he enjoyed them — a lot. He called soon afterward, seeking more, but alas, I had no more to give.
My next experience with this opiate happened a year or two later, in Memphis, but I didn’t encounter the drug or its abusers there. I was reading The Memphis Flyer, an alternative newsweekly, and came across an article about an opiate epidemic — in Maine. When I returned to my home state soon after that, it was a very different place.
When I was a kid in Augusta, in the ’70s, Maine’s capital was a solidly middle-class town with some lower- and upper-class folk around the edges. (I actually can’t recall having seen any poor people while growing up, but privileged children usually don’t notice such things.) The Valley was filthy with well-off and hard-working Irishmen; Sand Hill was filthy with well-off and hard-working Frenchmen. You kept your doors unlocked, the keys in your Plymouth Satellite, and let your kids wander off as far as your unleashed dogs. There was the state mental hospital (the Augusta Mental Health Institute, or AMHI), but that was locked up tighter than a preacher’s ass. There was only one person wandering the town with mental illness, and everyone knew him. He enjoyed dressing as a woman. (Looking back, maybe he wasn’t ill at all — just bold for a cross-dresser in that decade.)
That sense of security started to fade toward the end of the ’70s, when the hospital opened up and started to spill the mentals onto the streets. Patients were “deinstitutionalized,” often against their will, into halfway houses and other residential programs. AMHI had long housed well over 1,500 patients (including, beginning in the ’60s, alcoholics and “narcotic and barbiturate addicts,” who could get treatment there for 90 days). When the state closed AMHI in 2004, it was replaced with a facility (Riverview Psychiatric Recovery Center) that had only 92 beds.
Most of the patients released in Augusta stayed in Augusta. And you know what happened then: white flight, brain drain, ghettoization. By the time I returned, in 2002, most of the old Victorians had been converted to halfway houses, or chopped up into apartments or office space (for professionals who worked, but would never consider living, in Augusta).
And the nasty opiate epidemic I’d read about in the Flyer was raging.
As a younger man, I’d lived on the streets of Houston, and Tombs and I had some dangerously crazy times in Tennessee, but the first time I got mugged was in the opiatopia of Augusta, Maine. I was at a party at an apartment not far from the Palace (hanging out with people I’d met, no doubt, at The Wharf, in Hallowell). While walking home, someone must have followed me. I experienced blunt-force trauma to my right frontal lobe. A desperate pill-fiend smashed your humble narrator quite viciously in the head and stole my wallet. After five hours on the operating-room table and a subdural hematoma, I awoke with a shaved head and haven’t been able to smell a thing ever since.
Well, there were other changes, too. I certainly seemed to get in a bit more trouble after the accident.
“Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.”
— Thomas Sydenham
Humans have been getting high from the poppy plant for millennia: from the beady-eyed Neolithic hunters and gatherers that roamed present-day Switzerland, to the ancient Greeks and the Arab traders who brought dope to the Far East and back again.
Back in the 1660s, Thomas Sydenham, who became known as “the father of English medicine,” compounded a tincture of opium called laudanum, based on an earlier version discovered by an alchemist named Paracelsus the century before. Later dubbed “the aspirin of the nineteenth century,” laudanum was taken for a wide range of ailments — from diarrhea to menstrual cramps, heart disease and the DT’s (delirium tremens). Mixed with ingredients like sherry and herbs, it became insanely popular among the gentry, who considered it less “Bombay” than the opium smoked by the working class in their dens.
In 1803, the German pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner isolated an especially powerful alkaloid of opium that he named “Morphine,” after the Roman god of sleep and dreams, Morpheus. He later discovered that morphine was great for treating people addicted to — you guessed it — opium! In 1827, the German pharmaceutical company Merck started commercial manufacture of the drug and sold it around the world. A few decades later, the Scottish doctor Alexander Wood developed the hypodermic needle, and at first its sole use was the injection of morphine and other opium derivatives.
In 1874, an English researcher named C.R. Alder Wright got the bright idea to boil morphine with another chemical to produce an even stronger drug. By the end of the century, this new drug — dubbed “Heroin,” after a German word meaning “heroic” or “strong” — was being made by the German pharmaceutical company that eventually became Bayer, the aspirin people. They trademarked Heroin and sold it for over a decade as a supposedly non-addictive alternative to — you guessed it again — morphine!
This pattern has continued through the present day — pharmaceutical companies develop stronger opiates and claim these new, “non-addictive” drugs are more effective than the weaker ones or can help people kick addiction to the latest opiate scourge.
Enter OxyContin, which Purdue Pharma started pushing in 1996. Compared to other pain pills that could only provide relief for a few hours, Oxy’s time-release capsule promised to do the job for up to half a day. Purdue’s shills aggressively lobbied doctors to prescribe Oxy by touting its strength and by claiming, falsely, that it was hard to abuse.
“Big pharma triggered this opiate epidemic by marketing OxyContin as a safe, less addictive opioid,” said Peter Wohl, formerly of Crisis & Counseling Centers in Augusta, and now a yen master at Treetop Zen Center, in Oakland. Wohl told me that Purdue “targeted Maine because of our high incidence of chronic pain.” The one-syllable state has more elderly people than most, and our traditional industries demand a lot of back-breaking labor — think lumberjacking, raking blueberries, clamming, hauling fishing nets and lobster traps, etc.
Mainers like Tombs soon figured out that Oxy’s time-release mechanism could be unlocked by simply crushing and snorting the pills. Other methods can get you even higher. If you swallow an Oxy, you’ll get about 20 percent of the pill’s jolt. If you crush and sniff it, you get a whopping 80 percent.
“Injection will always give you 100% of the drug,” Zoe Odlin-Platz, of the India Street needle-exchange program, wrote in an e-mail to me. (God bless you and your people, Zoe!) “Another method that is about 95% effective is booty bumping, which is mixing a shot like you’re going to inject it but then inserting it in your bum (without the needle!),” she explained. “The tissues in your anal cavity absorb at a very fast rate.”
In 2007, Purdue pleaded guilty to lying about Oxy’s potential to be abused and was fined over $600 million. But the company had already made many billions from the drug, and continues to profit from the sale of its new, supposedly tamper-proof version. Even though what the company had done was technically a felony, nobody at Purdue Pharma went to jail for their role in creating this epidemic.
As an alcoholic imprisoned in Windham from 2009 to 2011 for multiple OUI’s, I found myself in the minority. Most of the addicts in lock-up were opiate fiends, and most of the prisoners attending the Silver Bar A.A. Group there were opiate addicts. The other odd thing I noticed was that these addicts weren’t your classic “TV” criminals. There were old, Republican guys (“Matlocks”) who hadn’t thought it a problem to sell what pills they didn’t need to supplement their dwindling income. And there were young guys who’d never committed a crime until Purdue perpetrated its felony. If these guys had actually been criminals, they wouldn’t have been so easily apprehended. But they were addicts who desperately needed more and couldn’t get it, so they made clumsy, sometimes even comic attempts at burglary and robbery. Most of their criminal experience came from what they saw on Law & Order.
While discussing the Oxy epidemic with a psych nurse at Windham, I remember saying, “Well, it probably put the heroin dealer out of business, right?”
“Oh, no,” she replied. “Addiction is a disease of ‘more,’ and eventually doctors won’t prescribe ‘more.’ When the addict can’t get the opiate legally, they end up going to old reliable.”
When I was released from prison and living on the streets, I found out she was right. The heroin dealers are doing just fine.
“It wasn’t the end of the world, but you could see it from there.”
— Robin Williams
I’d read about heroin, and I’d seen peeps who were allegedly junkies, but I’d never seen it up close until I lived in the woods on the Fore River a couple years ago. At the time, I was deeply into spice (chemically treated herbs that mimic the effects of marijuana), as were all the Merry Men at our encampment in Sherwood Forest.
We always kept an eye on strangers who moved into those woods, and in the spring of 2013 we encountered a camp of serious creepers — six or seven late-twenty-somethings in three black, oily tepees spray-painted with upside-down pentagrams, some 666’s, maybe some SS thunderbolts. They’d strung doll parts between the trees around their site, among other warnings, and they were all obviously fucked up on something else, but they did have spice.
Kosmo, Santos and CeCe went to visit them with me, and we sat around this wacky plastic-bucket totem pole getting fucked up on spice while one of the creeper kids went on and on about “chem trails.” Well, eventually the pipe went empty, and the leader of this creeper-coven hadn’t reappeared for a while, so Bella and I went looking for him. We entered his tepee, the word “TrOnIc” hand-painted in orange over its flapping burlap door. There on the ground this dirty scarecrow sat, a rubber band tied around his upper arm and a needle in his hand.
“Hey, where’s the spiggitti?” I asked, stoned-casual. At that point, I gave as much of a fuck what this idiot was doing as a cat would. I just wanted him to hand over more spice. He murmured something. His eyes were closed and he kept stabbing himself in the arm with the needle, slowly and clumsily.
Like I said, I’m not a junkie, but I know how needles work. “Push the plunger, bro,” I told him. But he wouldn’t. He just kept sticking himself with the thing. “Are you looking for a vein?” I tried. No response. “I’ll tell you what — give me some spiggitti and I’ll come back in a minute and help you find a fucking vein.”
Then Kosmo came into the tent. “Wait outside, brother,” he told me.
“What the fuck?” I sighed.
“Heroin, brother,” Kosmo said. “Heroin.”
The Yam Yam. Shanghai Sally. Chasing the dragon, as they say on the street, or (my favorite) firing the ack ack gun. Heroin’s been illegal for over 100 years now, and there’s more of it in Maine than ever. But if there’s one thing that can make the War on Drugs a bigger failure, it’s Gov. Paul LePage’s War on the Poor.
I know Bill Burns, the resource center coordinator at Preble Street, pretty well. He isn’t your stereotypical head-shaven, tattooed, recovering addict from the streets who wants to make a difference in the old neighborhood. Bill looks just like one of you. Imagine: If you were visited by a ghost and suddenly had an overwhelming desire to work with the poor, you’d be Bill.
There’s never enough staff at the Preb, so it seems like Bill is either everywhere at once or nowhere at all. I knew I’d never be able to catch Bill alone, so I grabbed a spot on the bench where he sat, wedged between Stretch and some guy named Norm. I asked Bill if he thought the addiction problem in Portland had gotten better or worse since he arrived here five years ago.
“Worse,” he said. “A lot of it in response to non-prescription coverage, you know. Getting dropped from MaineCare.” (The same thing Kevin K. said earlier.) “But, you know, there’s never been a society without addiction,” Bill added. “And alcohol is still number one.”
“Really?” I was surprised, having convinced myself I was now in the minority. “Here at the Preb?”
“Here at the Preb. There’s a chronic absence of treatment beds, particularly for alcohol. So many times we have people more than willing to go to treatment, and there are just no beds.”
“Sixty thousand people, five beds. So, faced with the option of no treatment or continued addiction, a lot of people choose the latter.”
In LePage’s Maine, even the opiate addicts in treatment have reasons to live in fear.
Three years ago, I was in an intensive outpatient program when the state announced a two-year limit on MaineCare reimbursements for methadone and Suboxone treatment — after 24 months, you either go cold turkey or get back on the horse. The topic dominated our recovery group’s discussions for a week, and the fear reverberated on the street. I remember standing in the alcove of the former Fotoshop (now Art Mart) on Congress Street with Bella and Kosmo when some thug came up to Kosmo and started whispering about the treatment cap (he said it limited treatment to three months). He was telling Kosmo about some heroin coming up from Mass., asking if he could handle the liquidation of a couple bundles, since demand was sure to spike. He was right — it has.
LePage’s latest proposal is to move MaineCare recipients off methadone and onto Suboxone, despite the fact Suboxone is less effective for hard-core addicts, there aren’t nearly enough doctors licensed to prescribe it, and Suboxone is much easier to sell on the street and abuse than methadone, which is dispensed under tight supervision.
“I get sicker coming off of Suboxone than I would if I was coming off of heroin,” an addict called Coolidge told me, sucking a Natty Daddy from a root-beer bottle. “I’ll come off of heroin in three days. It’ll be hell, but three days. Without Suboxone, I’ll be sick for a month. I mean, you’ll think it’s over, and back it comes.”
“Hell, methadone’s worse,” said Flip, unsolicited, looking a big rough around the edges. I’d met him before, at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. “Coming off of Suboxone will fuck me up for, like, 50 days at least. Coming off of methadone takes six months, and your head won’t be right for a year.”
“It sucks,” Flip bitched. “I get my scrip for Suboxone and I end up helping out a few friends who are hurting, and then I run out and I have to find some on the street, or I’ll have to find dope.”
Unlike Oxys these days, Suboxone is very tamper-able. The strips are soaked in water, which is then injected through little cotton balls to prevent any unwanted chunks from getting shot in.
“The half-life of heroin is eight to twelve hours, whereas the half-life of Suboxone is thirty-six hours,” Kevin K. told me outside the Preb, referring to the amount of time it takes for half a dose to be out of your system. “If you have a Sub, you’ll be OK for a while. If you’re on heroin, you know that it’s gonna be out of your system in maybe eight hours, you know you’re gonna need something for when you wake up.”
I asked Kevin about the “bundles” the thug had discussed with Kosmo. “There’s ten bags in a bundle,” Kevin said.
“And a bag’s the same as a ‘ticket’?” — another term I’d heard.
“Yes. And that’ll cost you around $20 right now. Course, it’s twice what it is just a little south of here, but it’s supply and demand.”
“How easy is it to find the shit?” I asked.
“Look around us,” he said. “There’s plenty of people who’ll act as a runner, a go-between. You won’t normally find some television-style dealer walking around the resource center with a fur coat full of drugs.”
“How much work do you have to put into it? I mean, does it take up all of your time, the hustle and everything?”
“No, not really,” he said. “But you can spend anywhere from $20 a day to $220 a day. Eventually, you’ll need more.”
A year ago, I interviewed Portland police officer Dan Knight, who patrols downtown on foot and bicycle, and asked him what the most abused drug was on the streets. He’d quickly replied, “Suboxone.” Last month, I asked Officer Knight the same question, and he just as quickly replied, “Heroin.”
“One of the biggest problems right now is that a lot of the heroin we get up here has been cut with Fentanyl,” Kevin told me. First developed in the 1960s, the synthetic opioid is about 20 times more potent than heroin and roughly 100 times stronger than morphine.
“A lot of people think of it like it’s the good stuff, but we’ve had a lot of overdoses around here lately, and it’s because of the Fentanyl,” Kevin said. “At least they’re handing out naloxone now” — an “opioid antagonist,” also known as Narcan, administered to overdose victims — “although the other night I was with this guy who OD’d and it took two tubes of that shit to wake the guy up.”
I’ve got one of the naloxone kits Kevin was talking about. About a month ago, I was trained to administer the nasal spray. The drug is supposed to reverse the depression of the nervous and respiratory systems that leads to death. If someone is unconscious and unresponsive, you give them a rescue breath, tilting the head back (a la CPR), then squirt half of the mixture up one nostril and half up the other. This ought to get things moving, and hopefully, by now, someone will have called 911. The nasal spray is just about as effective as the injection, and not nearly as intimidating.
Funny thing is, I’ve been prescribed naltrexone, a similar opioid antagonist, to help curb my desire to drink. Since I started taking it, back in 2012, I never again suffered those insane cravings. (I suppose I should start taking my naltrexone again, hey? Yup-yup.) The FDA originally approved Naltrexone for treatment of opioid addiction, in 1984 — before they figured out it didn’t work very well for that.
In October 2013, the FDA approved a new super pain pill, Zohydro ER (Extended Release). Like Oxys, Zohydro can provide relief for half a day. Also like Oxys (the original formulation, anyway), it can be crushed and snorted to get you super high.
FDA head Margaret Hamburg approved Zohydro against the recommendation of the advisory committee of experts the agency convened to weigh whether it should be allowed on the market. The vote to keep it away from the public was 11-2.
Zohydro contains no aspirin, so it can be taken for long periods without damaging the liver. But it’s five-to-ten times stronger than similar pain pills, and again, it’s totally tamper-able.
A coalition of over 40 health and addiction-recovery groups wrote a letter to Hamburg begging her to reconsider. “In the midst of a severe drug epidemic fueled by overprescribing of opioids, the very last thing the country needs is a new, dangerous, high-dose opioid,” the group’s letter read. “Too many people have already become addicted to similar opioid medications, and too many lives have been lost.”
Twenty-nine state attorneys general — including Maine’s, Janet Mills — also wrote to the FDA in protest, as did many members of Congress, including Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud. The governors of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell urging her to “overturn the FDA’s erroneous decision,” saying Zohydro “is all but designed to be abused.” (The only New England governor who didn’t sign was LePage.) Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick even tried to ban Zohydro, but the courts overturned that effort.
The Maine Chiefs of Police Association supported a bill in Congress to revoke the drug’s approval, including good ol’ Sheriff Randall Liberty of Kennebec County, whose establishment I’ve frequented in the past. I can’t imagine Randall wanting an even stronger, easily crushable opiate on the streets of Augusta.
I asked around about Zohydro. Nothing. Nobody’d seen it or even heard of it on the streets. Wait — one fellow had a friend who had an aunt down in Mass. who was on it for cancer. According to him, they keep such a tight lid on this shit that it’s practically impossible to get. So far, anyway.
Around the same time the FDA green-lighted Zohydro, the agency put new restrictions on that entire class of drugs — no more automatic re-ups or phoned-in scrips; physician’s assistants can’t prescribe it. And in February, the FDA approved an “abuse resistant” version of Zohydro, though more studies have to be done before it earns that label, and a truly tamper-proof version may not be available until 2017.
“If you’re not angry, you should be.”
— Gov. Paul LePage
In those Sherwood Forest days, our good friend Kosmo weighed about 120 pounds soaking wet (as we all often were). He was hitting the methadone clinic every morning, in addition to spice and Dust-Off and Suboxone and the benzos. He was no longer allowed in the library or the Oxford Street shelter or that Cumbys in the West End. His mood was unpredictable, but always extreme.
And then one day, he was just gone. His tent (my old tent) was trashed, but empty of both Kosmo and the damsel of questionable sobriety he’d brought down to the woods. We discovered later that he’d been arrested for some crazy caper and would be in the county jail for some time.
When Kosmo was released, in April of 2014, he was free from everything, including the methadone handcuffs he’d complained about for so long. I spotted Kosmo down at the soup kitchen and hardly recognized him: he weighed at least 200 pounds, six feet and four inches of muscle and good health, full of charm and spirituality. He said he was done with chemicals. He smiled a lot. He’d started leading a recovery circle and teaching Falun Gong.
That lasted about a week or two, until he rejoined what we call “the other fellowship” and fell back into mad addiction.
According to a 2013 report by the state Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, the estimated annual cost of substance abuse in Maine was over $1.4 billion in 2010, a 56 percent increase since 2005. Most of the increase was attributed to the cost of cops, courts and jails. The smallest portion of the cost, $47 million (3.4 percent of the total), was money related to treatment.
Since 2010, opiate addiction has skyrocketed, again. The number of people enrolled in Maine’s needle-exchange programs more than tripled between 2010 and last year, when well over half a million needles were dispensed to over 4,000 people, according to a state report. About half of those users visit the India Street exchange. (Those little orange plastic caps you see everywhere? Those aren’t from discarded Pez dispensers; those are needle caps.)
In his current budget proposal, LePage wants an additional $4 million for more drug agents, prosecutors and judges. As was the case last year, the governor requested no additional money for treatment.
“If you’re not angry, you should be,” LePage said in March, blasting critics of his approach to the epidemic. “You should be disgusted at the behavior of some of these legislators that want to continue to ignore the killing of our children. They are weak on drugs.”
The killing of our children. Overdose deaths reached 210 last year, up from 176 the year before. Heroin and prescription opiates caused most of them. Before the epidemic, in the late ’90s, Maine averaged about 50 overdose deaths per year.
I knew this young kid, O’Kelly, who was released from Windham around the same I was, in 2011. When he overdosed, a month after he got out, I prayed and did my native thing, but…
Do we get colder after hearing of every new drug death? Or do we just find ourselves faced with it so often that we’re forced to resolve it?
You find your conscience on the streets.
Jake was the most recent one close to me to die. He was a 37-year-old, barrel-chested thug with beautiful eyes and a great voice and a vicious addiction, coupled with chronic homelessness and the criminal recidivism that so often accompanies it. The first time I met Jake I thought he was going to kill me, so when I saw him the second time, with my guitar, and he yelled, “Play a song, guitar man!” I bloody played! And what did this bruiser like to hear, like to sing, like to play his harp to? Why, “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
Jake seemed indestructible. Then he went to sleep one night this spring and never woke up — at least not on this plane. Addiction and street life. Your body can only take so much.
And Jeremy’s dead.
I met Jeremy after a night of doing some sort of mail-order powder at a friend’s place (OK, back in ’98 I was his drug-and-alcohol counselor! Right?!) Jeremy was this brilliant, bespectacled young nerd, a sensitive addict who’d been grieving the recent loss of his dog. The day after we met, Jeremy e-mailed me a picture he’d taken of me and Bella.
Jeremy didn’t come from the street, but his addiction brought him there, and from then on, the street owned him. Jeremy was no thug. He was, like me, “prep-school homeless.” He came from an upper-middle-class background, with all the advantages that go with it.
So how’d he end up on the street? In my experience, it’s all about just one moment — the moment when, instead of turning right, I turned left. One day, years ago, Jeremy turned left and decided to “try” heroin.
Jeremy didn’t die in Portland, he died in Mass., but he’s buried in Maine. I went to his graveside service. Preble had offered transportation to anyone who wanted to go; five of us went. I know January was there, and Bill was driving, of course. The cemetery isn’t far. It’s one of those bone-yards with no stones, only markers flush with the ground for easy mowing. You know the kind of place — marble benches engraved with the names of people who’ll never sit on them. If you didn’t know it was a cemetery, from a distance you might mistake it for a quiet little park. You’d have no idea of the meat beneath.
We wandered through the flat graveyard, some of us fucked up, or maintaining, and we spotted the group gathered for Jeremy’s interment. There were plastic chairs and a podium. His family was there, a well-scrubbed, WASP-y lot — quite a contrast to his family from the street. Maybe it was this difference that made it so very heartbreaking for them. More so than for us.
Was there a preacher man there? There must have been. God — that’s strange. I wasn’t fucked up that day, but I honestly can’t remember the service. I only know that Jeremy is dead, and everything he might have accomplished died with him. I remember him sitting in on a strategy session for the Recovery Project’s peer-support circles and how he just ate it up — so excited, so motivated, so full of ideas.
Now Jeremy’s dead, and he won’t be the last — oh, not by a long shot.
The opiatopia that Maine has become could be a poem. I’ll give it a try…
O’Kelly was only 19 when he died from an overdose.
Brian lit a candle and burned himself up, down on the coast.
J.D. crossed the street, but never made it to the other side.
Donna poured herself a drink, and drank until she died.
Jeremy took all he had and gave it to the spike.
Holly had a relapse and it turned out far from right.
J-Tak was only 24, and hung himself on a Saturday.
And Jake fought the street and lost,
There is no other way.
I’ll feel the ghosts of Preble Street long past my own dying breath.
But addiction is the distraction,
And inaction equals death.