Throughout the course of last Tuesday morning, Belfast Police Chief Mike McFadden said he had to deal with three separate issues that all illustrated the growing problem of prescription drug use and abuse in the community.

Two of those incidents, he said, involved people who were on prescription drugs while driving through the city.

For the first incident, McFadden said he was stopped and waiting to merge into traffic when a pickup truck cut him off, nearly causing a collision. When McFadden executed a traffic stop, McFadden learned the man behind the wheel had a medical condition and had taken some medication prior to driving in to town.

The driver was visibly impaired, he said.

Not long after that, McFadden said police caught up with another driver who had crossed the center line while traveling through town. When police met up with the female driver at Goodwill, McFadden said it was clear that she, too, was operating under the influence of some kind of drug.

Earlier that same day, McFadden said a woman had come to the police department and reported that her home had been burglarized and that her prescription medications were stolen.

But McFadden said there was something off about that particular complaint.

The first red flag McFadden recognized is that the woman waited until two days after the alleged break-in to report it to police.

"What she did immediately was contacted her doctor to ask for more medication," he said. "The reason she waited until two days later to report the incident was because her doctor would not refill her prescriptions without a police report showing her medications had been stolen."

And as the woman sat at the police department to make the initial complaint, McFadden said she was "literally falling asleep while standing up."

Incidents like the ones McFadden witnessed on that particular morning continued throughout the course of that day and night.

"It's something that consumes more and more of our time," said McFadden.

Last week, McFadden was part of a panel of speakers at the free showing of "Hungry Heart," which was presented by Seaport Family Practice and the Colonial Theater. The documentary, set in Vermont, focuses on opiate addiction and its impacts on families and the community, as well as on the recovery process.

"That could easily have been filmed right here in Belfast," said McFadden.

And the problem does not only lie with those who fit the classic description of an addict. As demonstrated by the driver who nearly collided with McFadden last week, the community should also be concerned about the drivers who are taking medication as prescribed. That's because even if a painkiller is taken at the prescribed dose, McFadden said the person could still be rendered too impaired to get behind the wheel.

"People have to take stock in whether or not they're impaired," he said.

'We are a drug culture'

When asked about possible causes of the rise in drug-related incidents, McFadden posed a question.

"When was the last time you saw the commercial with the egg in the frying pan saying 'this is your brain on drugs'?" he said.

In the years since that iconic public service announcement was once commonplace on American television screens, McFadden said the airwaves are now overrun by commercials promoting various prescription drugs.

In states like Colorado, recreational marijuana use is now legal, and McFadden said there are more legalization movements that are ongoing all over the country.

"We are a drug culture," said McFadden. "We have broken down the barriers that once existed."

That is why McFadden feels more and more teens are trying drugs, and why more and more addicts are being created each day.

"There's no fear," he said.

The only way to fight addiction and the many problems that come with it, said McFadden, is by working together to change the impression society has given young people that "this is a widely accepted practice."

"If we approach it with the intent of changing the perception, and changing the culture, then I think we can have a better influence on our young people," he said.

For many youths, parents can play a major role in a teen's decision about whether to experiment with drugs.

"Parents are the first step, they really need to be honest with their kids about drugs and drug abuse," McFadden said.

Patrick Walsh, substance abuse prevention coordinator for Healthy Waldo County, agreed.

"Parents play a very important role," said Walsh.

Every two years, Walsh said, Maine's high- and middle-school students have taken the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, which offers statistical data about the students' own experiences with tobacco, alcohol and drugs and gauges how those topics are approached in their own families.

The findings from the 2011 survey, which is the most recent data Walsh has to-date, showed high school students who do not believe their parents are concerned about marijuana use are more than four times more likely to use it than their peers whose families take a harder position on its use.

While alcohol use among our local teens has been on the decline in recent years, Walsh said marijuana use among Maine youths appears to be back on the rise.

But there is some good news in those findings, too, Walsh said.

Of the high school students surveyed, Walsh said 83 percent of them agreed that their families have clear rules concerning alcohol and drug use.

But when those same students were asked if they had talked to at least one parent about the dangers of tobacco, alcohol or drug abuse in the last 12 months, the number dropped to 40 percent.

"Parents need to have more frequent conversations with their kids," said Walsh.

Inventing the wheel

McFadden said it will take more than additional police officers, drug counselors and programs to combat addiction in the community, because those things are designed to address those who have already become hooked.

"If all of our efforts go into treating people who already have an addiction, then we're turning our backs on those who are just getting into it."

McFadden feels the community needs to be proactive and find ways of reaching those who may become addicts in the future — especially teens and young adults.

One way to help start the conversation, said Walsh, is to attend the upcoming meeting of the Waldo County Community Anti-Drug Coalition Thursday afternoon, May 22, at 4 p.m. The meeting will be held at the Regional School Unit 20 Central Office, and Walsh said if the turnout warrants it, the meeting will be moved to the Belfast Area High School library.

Walsh said that will be a time for members of the public to ask questions, express concerns and share ideas on how to attack the local addiction problem.

"We can take a look, see what works, see what other communities have done," said Walsh. "This is a nation-wide problem."

McFadden and Walsh said they are open to any ideas people in the community may have for addressing the issue, because it has grown bigger than any one person, organization or agency can successfully handle alone.

"The reality is, there has not been an out-of-the-box cure for this issue," said the chief. "We have to use our imaginations, and think about how best to address this problem; sitting at home complaining about it isn't doing anyone any good… This wheel has not been invented yet."

For more information about the upcoming meeting, contact Walsh at 338-2200 ext. 109.