2014-11-18 / Front Page

Task force focusing on drug and alcohol abuse

By DINA MENDROS | Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD — This year alone, there have been more than 29 drug overdoses in Biddeford, with approximately five drug overdose deaths, according to police.

To try to fight the drug and alcohol problem in the city, Mayor Alan Casavant has assembled an ad hoc task force, looking for ways to address the issue.

“We need to get people talking,” said Casavant. “We need to take a community approach that goes beyond the traditional. I'm not sure what that's going to be.”

One way to get the community involved and talking was a community forum held at Biddeford High School on Wednesday.

Those in the audience included students, parents and other interested parties.

By way of an introduction, Casavant, who is a retired teacher at BHS, spoke about a former student who was a “good kid,” but his personality changed and his grades took a dive once the boy got involved in drugs.

In addition to the mayor, speakers included faculty members and researchers with the University of New England in Biddeford.

UNE Professor and Vice President for Research and Scholarship Dr. Edward Bilsky spoke about the abuse of prescription drugs.

“We've become a country that relies too much on pharmacology,” he said.

“The number one prescription drug in the U.S. is hydrocodone,” said Bilsky, an opioid used for pain relief. “There are 130 million prescriptions of hydrocodone filled in the U.S. each year.”

Bilsky noted that Maine has one of the highest rates for opioid prescriptions.

Those who have legal prescriptions for the drugs should take care of them so that young people don't have access to those medications, he said.

He noted that overuse of opioids, which are designed to make people feel better, have health risks. They can cause strokes and heart attacks. In addition, they can cause people's natural pleasure receptors to “burn out,” making people need increased dosages of the drugs to get the same effect.

Christian Teter, a professor at UNE's College of Pharmacy, spoke about the dangers of marijuana use for young people.

“What scares me,” he said, is that “marijuana in adults is relatively safe. In teenagers, it's not safe.”

Because their brain is still developing, said Teter, the IQ for youth who use marijuana “gets crushed.”

According to study in New Zealand that followed people for 38 years, he said, the IQs of those who started smoking marijuana as an adolescent plummeted, where as their wasn't a significant IQ drop for those who started smoking the drug as adults.

Use of the drug can affect short-term memory, attention, judgment and other cognitive function, said Teter, and added that it can also cause an increase in heart rate. The effects intensify when combined with alcohol or other drugs.

The cumulative effect of marijuana use, he said, is that it can lead to addiction, chronic cough, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and other emotional syndromes.

“It's not as benign as people say,” said Teter.

Drug use and abuse “is the hardest thing I have to deal with on a daily basis,” said BHS Principal Jeremie Sirois.

“As a school, we're trying to do things,” he said, such as bringing in speakers like former Celtics player Chris Herron, who told students about his own drug problem during the last school year, holding a drug awareness week, as well as hosting last week's community forum.

Because of concern of drug use among teenagers, K-9 units were brought to the high school in October.

Drug sniffing dogs sniffed hallway lockers and in the parking lots, but no drugs were found in the areas they searched.

Superintendent of Schools Jeremy Ray said he was proud that no drugs were located, however, “I'm not naive enough to think we don't have a problem.”

Dealing with drug and alcohol use at the high school and even middle school level is important to prevent these substances from impeding a person's future, he said.

Ray said he's interviewed juvenile offenders with drug problems who have been sent to Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

Most, said Ray, weren't involved in sports or other after-school activities.

“Every single one said ”˜I started smoking dope in fifth and sixth grade after school.'”

Casavant said his task force is looking for ways to deal with this problem, which is not just a issue in Biddeford, but a nationwide epidemic.

“We can't afford to have young people derailed before they have a chance to blossom,” he said.

— Staff Writer Dina Mendros can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 324 or dmendros@journaltribune.com.

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