From January to September of last year, 282 Mainers died from drug-related overdoses, according to the attorney general’s office. When the numbers come in for the full year, it’s expected that more than one person per day will have died from a drug overdose. The drug crisis is one of the most serious challenges we face as a state. Every day, it impacts families and communities across Maine. Nearly all of us have friends or family who have struggled with addiction. I’m glad that the new administration is making this a priority, but we have so far to go. In order to turn things around, we must understand how we got here.

The opioid epidemic that we’re struggling with today is inseparable from the prescription painkiller OxyContin, introduced by Purdue Pharma. OxyContin, a narcotic opioid painkiller, provided relief for many people who had struggled with chronic pain, but it was also highly addictive. To boost sales, Purdue Pharma lied and said that OxyContin wasn’t as addictive as it really was. According to The New York Times, court filings by the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York show that Purdue Pharma “continued to push aggressively to expand the market for OxyContin and other opioids for years after the company admitted in a 2007 plea deal that it had misrepresented the drug’s addictive qualities and potential for abuse.”

As Purdue Pharma pushed for doctors to prescribe more and more of its highly addictive drug, our communities suffered. People who were prescribed the drug for legitimate injuries or conditions found themselves addicted. Even after the Legislature forced doctors to cut folks’ supply of OxyContin, the damage had been done. Rather than face painful withdrawals, people turned to other opioids, such as heroin and cocaine. Addiction is a powerful force, incredibly difficult to turn away from.

Maine communities have paid a terrible price as the result of this corporate greed. We lose one person a day in large part because the company that created OxyContin lied about its addictiveness and made sure it was prescribed as much as possible. The opioid epidemic is expensive to society; desperate people often turn to crime to feed their addictions. The consequences ripple through families and communities throughout Maine.

As the crisis wears on, Purdue Pharma has not agreed to pay to help people recover from the addictions the company manufactured. Instead, it has begun to develop drugs to treat the addictions that they caused in the first place, hoping to profit from the crisis on both ends. No company should be able to target our communities the way Purdue Pharma has. As we work to make progress on the drug crisis, we must hold those who caused it accountable.

For decades, the idea has persisted that if someone is an addict, they should be arrested, jailed, lose everything and live with the stigma of a felony. Even people who work hard to turn their lives around are dogged by this stigma, which prevents them from getting a decent job and participating in society.

The “war on drugs” has resulted in a larger population of incarcerated citizens and a lack of facilities and resources to address the real problem: an opioid epidemic that is a public health crisis. After decades of the war on drugs, we are only now beginning to change the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” attitude that has cost us so dearly. Now, law enforcement departments across Maine are helping people find the treatment they need; prosecutors are supporting those efforts by expunging records when restorative justice programs are successful, and communities are stepping up to remove the stigma from people who made a mistake and have worked hard to recover and rejoin society.

We must keep drug companies from repeating the scams that they’ve committed in the past, and we must support our neighbors who have paid their dues for past mistakes. It’s time to welcome them back into our communities.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, you can reach out to the Maine Opiate Helpline at 211 or https://211maine.org. And if you would like to contact me about this or any other topic, call my office at 287-1515 or email David.Miramant@legislature.maine.gov.