Reporting on Heroin Use in Small Town Maine

By Christopher Crosby

crosby-photo-drug-spoonLEWISTON, Maine – Lewiston and its sister city of Auburn hug the Androscoggin River some 35 miles north of the state’s capital, Portland. Along the river are parallel grids of brick factory buildings that have been turned into condos and boutique restaurants. The newsroom of the local newspaper, Lewiston Sun Journal, looks out across Kennedy Park, once reviled as a no-go for anyone but drug dealers, but today a place where the children of a thriving Somali community play basketball and run.

In most states the twin cities of Lewiston and Auburn would be large towns, and in many ways Judy Meyer, the paper’s editor, says L-A, as this area is known, has the memory of a small town. There’s a dark joke, carrying overtures of a warning, in the newspaper’s editorial meetings heedful of that long memory. It is: Beware the face of crack.

About a decade ago the paper chronicled the crack cocaine addiction of a Lewiston mother of eight, posted her life-sized smiling face on the Sunday paper and called her “the face of crack.” She had been in-and-out of prison for a total of ten years. She was 37. Reader vehemence was swift.

“It was irresponsible of the Sun Journal to put a smiling face on the cover of the newspaper,” Cynthia Williams wrote. “Drag her in to be sterilized and publish that crying face of crack.”

Meyer worked the editorial desk at the time. “[I] remember the heat from readers coming in here every day,” Meyer said.

Fast-forward ten-years and this community, like Maine and the rest of New England, is facing what authorities have deemed a new health epidemic: heroin, Maine’s new crack. In 2015, 272 people died of heroin, fentanyl or opioid overdoses in the state, a record that eclipsed 2014’s record-breaking tally of 208.

The editors of the Lewiston paper say that they learned a lesson from the earlier epidemic. They no longer picture the “face of crack” as a deranged criminal but as a person with a health problem. In so doing, they are joining a growing national chorus. Late last year, several police departments formed a task force with a clear message: addicts would be helped, not prosecuted. It marked a departure from normal policing, but officials at the time felt they had a crisis on their hands. Deputy Sheriff Hart Daley told me that law enforcement’s attitude had evolved.

“This is truly a medical emergency,” Daley said. “Many law enforcement agencies have developed the philosophy that an addict needs help, and that’s our course of action so they can rehabilitate. The goal isn’t to charge” people with crimes.

The Journal felt a similar shift and set out to write human-interest stories that would explore addicts’ lives. “In Greene, family hopes addict’s story can save others” ran a story I reported on a middle class family destroyed by heroin use. But they were mindful of imbedded attitudes of the community, and tried to strike a balance, Meyer said. The change in attitude, she said, had more to do than with shifting police practices. The new health epidemic was hitting close to home. When a deputy’s daughter overdosed and middle-class families began to be affected, it broke down the stigma that heroin was a street drug. That felt like the paper was picking one class of person over another, something that felt, “Yucky” Meyer said.

“I think we had to be hit with a statistically high number of deaths to go, ‘What is going on?’”

They approached reporting with great care. On the one hand, these were stories having a profound effect on the community; on the other, they were cautionary tales.

Take these examples: To battle his heroin addiction, one man became “unconsciously” drunk everyday, and then weaned onto medical marijuana, which some doctors claim have medical benefits. Meyer wondered: It’s an important story, but was it an example to share with readers? Closely related was the case of one man, a former corrections officer, whose chronic back pain led to an opioid addiction. To kick it, the man started smoking marijuana, which is medically legal in Maine but for all else a federal crime. The science was there, but promoting cannabis to the wider readership caused the newsroom to pause. Was this the solution they wanted to tell people about?

“It’s not like telling people about wearing seatbelt.”

It wasn’t just the readers who they were concerned about. Their new “health crisis” approach toward drugs does not square with the approach of their top state official, the controversial Gov. Paul LePage. In April, LePage, a Republican, vetoed a bill that would have allowed pharmacists to prescribe Narcan, which quickly reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, to addicts without a prescription. While thirty states currently allow it, LePage has said Narcan continues the cycle of addiction.

Many heroin users evolve from prescription opioid addiction, according to the American Society for Addition Medicine, and the LePage administration has proposed putting limits on the amount doctors can prescribe. But many have criticized his administration’s response, which includes beefing up funding for law enforcement to fight drugs entering the state and prosecuting those arrested. LePage has called for increasing the state’s drug laws, saying addicts should go either to jail or to treatment centers.

“It’s what I call tough love, but believe me, it’s a tough, tough problem,” he said, according to an Associated Press report in June.

The narrative from the state’s top executive gives license for readers to question why the media is “coddling” drug users, Meyer said, raising old concerns.

And other stakeholders in the story have pushed back against publication. When one man died from an overdose the day after he was released from prison, the paper wrote an account. An adult living on his own, the man’s mother was furious. Meyer understood why: heroin came with a stigma of being a low-life, carried over from decades before when it was known as a drug of the street. But she didn’t identify the man’s family as a stakeholder in the story.

“We can’t sugarcoat these facts.”

While the Journal has taken this new stand, it is not shared by the paper’s weekly sister paper, the Advertiser Democrat. The editor, Anne M. Sheehan, disagrees slightly, worrying that human-interest stories romanticize addicts to the point where the paper appears to condone or glamorize their actions.

“It’s very difficult from our point of view to balance to the patient who’s been revived by Narcan on three or four times, it’s hard to be sympathetic there, when the attitude is, ‘Someone will save my life,’” Sheehan said. The Advertiser has written features detailing addiction, and about community efforts to find jobs for them. “The conversation is difficult. I still struggle with it,” she said. It presents a moral quandary: it’s too complicated to find good or bad. Sheehan says she differentiates between people who get addict from prescription drugs, or who start using heroin from the outset.

“When you write someone’s life story, you glamorize their addiction,” Sheehan says. “I think in story writing we write without judgment. Editorially, we can’t give it a pass. With story writing, I think the reader can learn from both of them.”

“Valeri comes clean about his drug addiction,” ran the headline of one story. In it, Advertiser reporter Erin Place relayed intimate details of a 20-year-old heroin addict. “Valeri knows he has a problem,” Place wrote, “which took him a long time to admit because, as he puts it, no one wants to fess up to being an addict.”

Then there are sources who withdraw their support from a story. Earlier this year the Journal began reporting on Jesse, who said that he lost his girlfriend, house and job to heroin. He was ready to tell the world his tale, until the mother of his children filed a custody suit.

“His lawyer said a newspaper article would be exhibit A in the case,” Meyer recalled. The paper had invested time, resources, hours of interviews into the story It could have been have published, even without his consent. But Meyer demurred.

“The fact is, there are other Jesses out there. Why injure him, or more importantly, his child?”

Sheehan says the paper has to be wary of informing the reader without losing sight of skeptical readers who may need convincing.

“My guess is we’d get push back from people who think, ‘Why are you writing stories, they’re just drug addicts.’ There’s a lot of that out there.”

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