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East Lyme — It's happening here — and in other small towns and cities, both rich and poor, across the state and nation.
That was the message Wednesday afternoon at a community forum on heroin addiction and the need to do more to address it.
Police, town officials, school principals, residents and health representatives filled the Town Hall meeting room and candidly shared why they attended.
East Lyme has had two fatal heroin overdoses in the past year, police Sgt. Wilfred Blanchette said, and emergency personnel have responded to an overdose call at least every other week.
"We are doing what we can," he said. "Certainly, we can do more - and we need to do more. Just the fact that the community has rallied together like this shows what support we have."
Blanchette said heroin use often starts with prescription drug use that turns into an addiction. Heroin then can follow as a cheaper alternative to prescription drugs for those who become addicted.
To help address the issue, the town provides a drop box at the police station, where 500 pounds of unwanted prescription narcotics were collected last year, he said. The town also recently sponsored a youth program to build rapport with police, and also brings programs to town, through the Ledge Light Health District, to combat drug use.
Some at the forum shared personal stories to address the realities of heroin and its effects on families.
One resident, Diane, said her 18-year-old son, who has been using heroin for two years and had just admitted himself into a treatment center Wednesday night, began with marijuana and then turned to pills. He had a history of chronic pain and had been put on medication in the hospital and then released.
"I am here to tell you that it is real," she said. "Definitely watch kids that are insecure about themselves. That was one way that he could show up at a party with all sorts of things and be the life of the party. And then you find out later that those really weren't your friends."
She said heroin use reaches family members, who are not always fully aware of their loved one's drug abuse, though there may be suspicions. She added that her son was able to purchase heroin not only in cities, but also in East Lyme.
"It is real," she said, "and I just hope everyone pays close attention to it."
Calling heroin addiction a "silent epidemic," First Selectman Paul Formica said he organized Wednesday's forum to begin talking about "a problem that doesn't seem to get enough conversation in our community and in communities throughout the state."
Heroin contributed to 257 fatal, accidental overdoses in Connecticut last year. In New London County, the number of deaths related to heroin grew from 23 in 2012 to 34 in 2013.
Formica, who serves on a Connecticut Conference of Municipalities task force that addresses heroin among other issues, said he has spoken with mayors and selectmen across the state about heroin use, which is not confined to poor, urban areas, but is a problem in all cities and towns.
"It's going to touch all of us at one point or another, and it's just time to talk about it," he said, adding that he wants to raise awareness and work together to find solutions to the issue.
Formica proposed extending drug prevention programs, like D.A.R.E., which ends in fifth grade, to older students.
School administrators also spoke about building resources.
"We are seeing a rise in this issue, and we need help," East Lyme High School Principal Michael Susi said. "We need to get a better understanding of what we are dealing with and collaborate with the town and the resources that are out there and try to help some of the students."
Health agencies and clinics outlined some available resources at the forum. For example, Ledge Light, a regional provider of health services, offers prescription guidelines to doctors and speaks to high school students about not taking prescription drugs that don't belong to them.
The Southeastern Regional Action Council, a prevention and intervention program, surveys high school students about their drug use and speaks to local real estate agents about removing medications from homes when they hold open houses.
The state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services showed a video, available online, about Narcan - also called naloxone - which reverses opioid overdoses. A 2012 law allows prescribers to write a prescription for Narcan for anyone who needs it, according to DMHAS regional manager, Rhonda Kincaid.
Assistant Superintendent of Schools Brian Reas spoke about the need to inform people about resources and where they can go for help.
Information on addiction will be available at Town Hall and on the town's website, www.eltownhall.com.