AUGUSTA — A key legislative committee rejected a bill Thursday that would have allowed for the creation of safe, medically supervised places where people could use illegal drugs.

The bill focuses on what’s known as “risk reduction” and follows a trend being embraced in some states and large U.S. cities.

The facility would be state-sanctioned, but privately run and privately funded. It would be 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 go to the facility to use drugs would not face arrest or prosecution.

Officials in places that are trying out such facilities are finding they are saving lives and helping guide people with substance abuse disorders to treatment and counseling that can lead to recovery. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Sylvester, D-Portland, said the legislation is an attempt to take another approach in the state’s effort to curb opioid overdose deaths in Maine.

But lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee voted 7-4 against the bill, sending a recommendation to the full Legislature that the measure be rejected.

Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, a retired physician, said she supported the concept and has learned a lot about how the facilities are being used in other places, but she still opposed the bill.

“Two years ago, if I would have heard of this, I would of said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ” Hymanson said. “But as I’ve moved along, I understand risk reduction and harm reduction and education that could move someone forward in this.”

Hymanson said she was voting against the bill, not because she didn’t believe it would work, but because “I think Maine, itself, is not ready for this, but with more discussion the time may come.”

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, a co-sponsor of the bill, joined three Democrats in supporting it. Brakey said he knew the bill was a long shot that would face significant opposition from both political parties and probably Gov. Paul LePage.

“But you know, right now people are dying on the streets and this bill does not spend a single dime of taxpayer money. And these facilities, all they are asking for is permission to … have a place where they can try this harm-reduction strategy, which seems to be working in other places.”

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. Brakey said the safe places would at least give some people a chance.

“I would rather have people have a safe place to go while they try to get their life together and transition to be ready for treatment,” he said.

Opponents, however, warn that safe-injection sites violate federal drug laws. Officials from the state Department of Health and Human Services said the bill could jeopardize federal funding for health care facilities or federal licenses for facilities or medical professionals.

Others who opposed the bill, L.D. 1375, also said it sends the wrong message to young people, who may see it as a kind of permission to do illegal drugs.

“I’m very concerned about what this tells our very impressionable youth,” said Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea. “As the mother of a 14-year-old daughter, I can say, ‘No, that’s wrong,’ but if she sees it’s OK here, to her, that’s all the excuse she needs to think that’s OK. I think that’s the wrong message when we are trying to have our youth not engage in drugs at all.”

Sylvester said he was disappointed with the vote Thursday and that he would make a pitch to his colleagues in the House before the bill comes up for a vote, probably next week.

Before Thursday’s committee vote, Sylvester sought to amend the bill to change some provisions related to health care professionals and also strike a half-mile immunity zone that would have been part of a safe-place facility. The amendment also called for DHHS to pre-certify a facility, but the facility would not be able to open unless it was also supported by local voters in a referendum.

Sylvester likens the opioid overdose crisis in Maine to the AIDS epidemic, but he said policymakers have been even slower to react to the drug crisis.

“In the 1980s and ’90s we didn’t act until everybody knew somebody who had died from AIDS,” Sylvester said. “The difference between this and the AIDS epidemic is at that point we were losing 67 people a year to AIDS in the state of Maine, and we’ve lost (376) people in the last year to the opioid epidemic. Every time we don’t act, all we are doing is condemning people.”

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

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