AUGUSTA — A bipartisan group of Maine lawmakers wants to add a controversial and radical approach to the ongoing efforts to combat the state’s opioid crisis – give people a safe place to use illegal drugs.

That safe place would be a state-permitted facility staffed by medical professionals who could provide emergency care in case of an overdose, help protect against the transmission of diseases associated with unclean hypodermic needles, and steer drug users into treatment if they want it. People who came in to use drugs would not face arrest or prosecution.

“No one deserves to die alone in an alley. Dead addicts do not recover,” Timothy Cheney, chief operations officer for Grace Street Services, an addiction treatment provider, told lawmakers during a public hearing this month. “Meet them where they are at and help to keep them alive.”

It’s a counterintuitive strategy that’s gaining ground around the United States and, according to Rep. Michael Sylvester, D-Portland, one that’s being used in dozens of other countries to help reduce overdose deaths and provide those with the highly stigmatized illness of substance abuse disorder a dignified pathway to treatment and eventual recovery. Such facilities are staffed by medical professionals who can administer the anti-overdose drug Narcan, and who also can provide medical advice and other resources to those struggling with addiction.

Sylvester is the sponsor of the Maine bill, which would direct the state’s Department of Health and Human Services to certify two facilities that could provide safe and secure locations for addicts to self-administer previously obtained drugs.

Sylvester said he believes the move would save lives during an overdose epidemic that’s claiming, on average, the life of one Mainer every day.

In 2016, 376 Mainers died of drug overdoses related to the use of an opioid drug such as prescription painkillers, heroin or fentanyl. Many became addicted after they were treated for pain and prescribed legal pain-killing drugs, and then turned to street drugs to get high or avoid withdrawal.

A least three other states and several large cities, including San Francisco, New York and Seattle, are either exploring similar laws or have adopted policies allowing for safe-injection locations. While a growing number of cities and states are forging ahead and trying new ways to reverse the overdose trend, opponents warn that safe-injection sites violate federal drug laws.

Bill opponents, including officials from the state Department of Health and Human Services, said it could jeopardize federal funding for health care facilities or federal licenses for facilities or medical professionals.

“Physicians, nurses and other licensed health care providers would be potentially putting their licenses at risk by overseeing the use of illegal drugs,” said Sheldon Wheeler, director of the state’s Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services.

And if a drug user died in such a facility, the facility and staff would bear some responsibility. “The risks to health care professionals and clients far outweigh the benefits,” he said.

The bill also is opposed by the licensing boards for doctors and nurses.

A similar bill also is before the legislature in Massachusetts. In Boston, a homeless clinic opened a similar pilot program in April 2016. It does not allow the use of drugs on site, but provides access to emergency medical help, immunity from arrest for using drugs, counseling and a pathway to treatment.

Hundreds have used the facility run by Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, and its director told The Washington Post in January that about 10 percent of them have entered treatment programs.

Sylvester, a Peaks Island resident, said he was motivated to bring the bill forward based on his experience losing a cousin to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and by the mother of a Peaks Island woman who overdosed and died in December as she tried to get into a treatment program.

Like AIDS victims, those struggling with addiction are being marginalized and stigmatized by society, Sylvester told members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee this month.

“This is where we are at with the opioid epidemic,” Sylvester said. “We have begun to recognize its scope. We have begun to seek all avenues in search of a successful approach.”

Sylvester has some surprising allies, including Sen. Eric Brakey, a Republican from Auburn and the Senate chairman of the committee; and state Rep. Karen Vachon, a Republican from Scarborough.

Vachon told lawmakers this month that the legislation starts a discussion “around a paradigm shift that will seem foreign in this country’s war on drugs but is, in fact, being done in other parts of the world with tremendous success.”

“This bill invites the possibilities of loving more, judging less and letting recovery come naturally in its own time,” Vachon said. “Maine is losing the battle on addiction and overdose deaths.”

She said the time has come for Maine to look at models of success in other countries and that’s why she is supporting the legislation.

The legislation, L.D. 1375, also would direct DHHS to collect data from the “safe-injection” clinics and monitor the facilities for effectiveness to determine if more should be opened.

Cheney, the chief operations officer for Grace Street Services, urged the committee to stop attacking the issue as a moral problem.

“This is a health care issue and a social justice issue, not a criminal nor a moral issue. I ask the committee to consider the lives that will be saved and to ask yourself how would you feel about this if your child or spouse died in an alley or public bathroom stall. Would it be a moral issue then?” said Cheney, who is in long-term recovery.

Lawmakers are expected to discuss the bill during a work session Thursday before they vote on a recommendation for the full Legislature.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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