Amid rising numbers of drug overdose deaths in Maine, most people testifying before a Portland City Council committee Tuesday night said they favor having the city establish a safe site where people struggling with substance use can inject drugs under medical supervision.

If Portland approved a safe consumption site, Maine’s largest city could be the first in the nation to authorize a government-sanctioned site for people to use drugs without legal penalties.

There are currently no sites in the United States because federal law prohibits maintaining any place where illegal drugs are distributed or used. But a growing number of cities and states are debating the issue at a time when heroin, fentanyl and prescription opioids are killing thousands of Americans each year.

There were 258 overdose deaths in Maine from January through June, a 27 percent increase over the second half of 2019. If deaths continue at a similar rate in the second half of 2020, the toll this year would break the record of 417 set in 2017. Deaths declined to 354 in 2018 before ticking up again to 380 in 2019.

The Maine Legislature has twice rejected proposals to authorize safe injections sites.

Overdose prevention sites are currently being used in Canada, Europe and other countries. Supporters say providing drug users with safe, clean and medically supervised spaces reduces drug overdose deaths and public health concerns that are linked to intravenous drug use. Such spaces can also serve as an entry point for treatment.

Members of the Portland City Council’s Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee conducted Tuesday’s public hearing to hear testimony on whether to establish an overdose prevention site, but took no action.

Members made it clear the issue won’t be addressed this year because Tuesday’s meeting was the committee’s last of 2020. With new councilors being sworn in next month, the committee’s makeup could change. The committee’s next meeting won’t be held until Jan. 12, said Chairwoman Belinda Ray.

In Portland, efforts to establish an overdose prevention site gained support this year from the group Black POWER and homeless advocates, who included safe injection sites among their demands during a two-week encampment on the steps of City Hall.

Councilors listened to about an hour of public testimony from more than a dozen people, nearly all of it in support of establishing an overdose prevention site. Many of those who spoke talked of loved ones lost to substance abuse and said the city, as well as society, must embrace the challenges faced by individuals struggling with addiction.

Caitlin Corrigan, director of health services at Preble Street, urged the council to create a safe injection site, provided it includes medical supervision. She cited the recent overdose death of a client who struggled with addiction for years.

“Drug use is occurring across the city and it has taken a toll,” Corrigan said. “Giving people a safe place with access to medical providers will save lives.”

“We can become the model for the rest of the country by becoming the first government sanctioned safe consumption site in the country,” said Mollie Kravitz, a student at the University of Maine School of Law. She urged the city to approve a site.

Kravitz said she lost a close friend, Jesse Harvey, this year to a drug overdose. Harvey was a well-known Maine recovery advocate and founder of the Church of Safe Injection.

“He had a right to life, period,” Kravitz said, adding that there is no evidence that such sites encourage drug use. She said the site would give those struggling with addiction a chance to seek help.

Tuesday’s meeting came on the same day that the Portland police issued a news release reporting that drug deaths continue to spike, with five in the first 10 days of November.

“Overdoses took the lives of four men and one woman ranging in age from 28 to 56 years old,” Portland police said. During that same period, first responders and bystanders saved the lives of seven other individuals who had overdosed by administering naloxone.

“The tragic impacts of substance use disorders are all too real,” Portland Police Chief Frank Clark said in a statement. “For those fighting that fight, we stand ready to help you on your path to recovery.”

Ray thanked the people who testified for sharing their stories.

“I found this meeting to be a tremendously powerful public hearing. I’ve been sincerely moved by the testimony I’ve heard tonight,” Ray said.

After the meeting ended, Ray said that the city should continue to investigate the feasibility of creating an overdose prevention site.

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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 6:55 p.m. on Nov. 11, 2020, to correct the spelling of Mollie Kravitz.


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