My name is Alex Klein, and I moved from the Baltimore suburbs to Portland to improve the quality of my life through personal growth and the maintenance of my recovery, as well as to help others.
The fact that drug overdoses are killing people in the Portland area and throughout Maine has continued to motivate me to take action and to spread awareness, in the hope of bringing about a reduction in the number of preventable opiate overdose deaths. Members of our community are dying in silence because of the shame and fear surrounding opiate overdoses and the criminalization of a public health issue.
From 2000 to 2014, nearly half a million people died from drug overdoses in the United States. In 2015, 272 people died from drug overdoses in Maine.
Narcan is the brand name for naloxone, which is used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. But without Good Samaritan legislation, which offers legal protection to people who assist those who have overdosed, the fear of arrests makes it less likely that a bystander will provide Narcan at the site of an overdose or call for help from someone who has the medication.
I recognize that I am not alone in this struggle to save the lives of our friends, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. It is no longer a moral dilemma whether the public should “enable” or “condone” opiate use. We are discussing a diagnosable and treatable mental illness and whether we want to help the people who have it to live and continue to be part of our community.
The lack of progress and action at the state level in response to this epidemic makes clear to me that human lives are not being treated or valued equally.
Without Good Samaritan legislation in place – which allows for more protection than the “affirmative defense” measures used at trial – the call to 911 will not be made and/or the arrival of Narcan will be too late. Another life will be lost that could have been saved.
The best-case scenario for Good Samaritan legislation would allow for immunity from drug and paraphernalia possession arrests and would allow people in a life-threatening emergency to receive the help they need. Of the 37 states that have Good Samaritan legislation, 18 provide for immunity from arrest for possession of a controlled substance, while another 13 provide for immunity from arrest for paraphernalia.
If Good Samaritan legislation continues to fail at the state level in Maine, then we must start to resolve this conflict locally. The Westbrook Police Department has equipped its officers with Narcan, and last year, the department instituted its own Good Samaritan policy: People who report overdoses or are in possession of drugs at the scene of an overdose are issued summonses instead of being arrested. Although this is not as effective as a statewide Good Samaritan law, it still represents progress toward decreasing overdose fatalities in Maine.
On a positive note, legislators in April did override Gov. LePage’s veto of a bill that allows pharmacists to dispense Narcan without a prescription. This will provide more opportunities for this antidote to be available during times of crisis and to those who know individuals actively struggling with addiction. The Maine Board of Pharmacy has until July 31, 2017, to write the rules that will allow this law to take effect.
The next step to reduce overdose fatalities is to introduce a safe injection site in Portland. In a state that lacks access to substance use disorder treatment, we must start from the ground up, allowing people to live and have a chance at increasing the quality of their life instead of falsely believing that addiction affects only “those people” and that they will die off – even though this is an illness that afflicts 20.2 million Americans.
Safe injection sites have been shown to reduce overdose fatalities in areas of high density of overdose. The facilities also have been effective at reducing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, as well as promoting entry into addiction treatment. Safe injection sites provide a space for individuals to receive clean syringes and have immediate access to Narcan if needed.
While this may seem like a way to enable drug users, individuals do not have a chance to recover if they are dead. Individuals are overdosing and dying. Creating a space would humanize these now-marginalized Mainers.
Enacting Good Samaritan legislation and allowing safe injection sites are two steps that should be considered based on the current levels of opioid addiction in our state and nation. By literally meeting people where they are, we can drastically cut back the number of deaths from this treatable illness and reduce the suffering of those affected by the losses.