The city of Portland has begun placing needle disposal boxes in Deering Oaks park and other locations as part of city officials’ response to rising heroin abuse rates.

The “Sharps Secure” boxes – lockable metal containers with openings just large enough to accommodate needles or syringes – were added to waste compactor trash cans in Deering Oaks, Peppermint Park, Harbor View Memorial Park and at least one other location. City staff trained in the collection of needles – which can transmit infectious diseases carried by the original users – then collect any needles in the boxes for proper disposal.

The needle-disposal receptacles were added several weeks after city parks staff and police began more regular patrols of Deering Oaks and other parks in response to increased complaints about used needles left in public places, including in the ravine located near the popular Deering Oaks wading pool.

“It’s obviously a public safety issue for the city to make sure we are giving every opportunity to dispose of these needles safely,” Portland City Manager Jon Jennings said Monday. “I will say that with the stepped-up enforcement … we have seen a sizable difference in the numbers of needles in the parks.”

City officials are working on a more robust plan for addressing the increasing abuse of heroin and other opiates in Portland in part by studying what cities and towns elsewhere have done in response to what has become a national epidemic.

Although opiate abuse has been on the rise in Maine for years, the issue was thrust into the public spotlight this summer when Portland rescue crews responded to 14 opiate-related overdoses during a 24-hour period from July 31 to Aug. 1. Two of those individuals died, and the sudden surge raised new concerns about a “bad batch” of heroin potentially laced with the powerful prescription opiate fentanyl.


Heroin abuse and overdose deaths are rising in Maine and across the country, fueled by the combination of low-cost heroin and higher prices for the prescription opiates that serve as the gateway to addiction for many users.

The number of Mainers seeking treatment for opiate addiction more than tripled between 2010 and 2014, rising from 1,115 individuals to 3,463 last year, according to statistics from the Maine Office of Substance Abuse. Meanwhile, heroin overdose deaths rose from seven in 2009 to 57 in 2014. Including fentanyl, Maine had 100 heroin or fentanyl overdose deaths in 2014, and 63 through June 30 of this year.

Last month, Gov. Paul LePage convened a summit of roughly two dozen people – most from law enforcement – to discuss ways to combat the growing heroin crisis, while U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, led a forum on the topic that included Michael Botticelli, the director of the national Office of Drug Control Policy. While LePage has focused largely on a law enforcement response to the drug traffickers and dealers bringing heroin to Maine, others have said any successful approach must include increased resources for drug treatment and education as well as a stepped-up police response.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Monday that he believes the increased daytime and nighttime patrols of parks, such as Deering Oaks and Peppermint Park, have been effective at reducing the number of individuals using heroin in the parks.

Sauschuck, Jennings and other city officials are currently discussing other ways to address the problem, potentially by replicating programs used by other cities that aim to guide drug users toward treatment programs rather than sending them through the criminal justice system.


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