Seven Maine police departments are getting a new tool they hope will reduce the number of fatal drug overdoses in the state.

Departments in Westbrook, South Portland, Biddeford, Kennebunk, Augusta, Bath and Brunswick are among 19 agencies in Maine and Massachusetts that will receive fentanyl test strips. They can be distributed to people to detect whether the drugs they are using are laced with the powerful synthetic opioid. Local and state officials say they are a harm reduction tool that can be used with other resources, including steering users to treatment programs, to prevent overdoses.

“It’s about saving lives,” said Kennebunk police Chief Robert MacKenzie, whose department will distribute test strips in York County. “We need to do everything we can as a community and society to save lives. There are a lot of people who struggle with substance use.”

The departments were chosen to participate in the One2One: Engagement to Recovery program by the Police Assisted Addiction & Recovery Initiative, a nonprofit that aims to help law enforcement agencies create non-arrest pathways to treatment and recovery.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that has been connected to the majority of overdose deaths in Maine in the past year. It is often added to other illicit drugs to increase potency, although the person who purchases the drugs may not be aware of the added risk.

Maine recorded its worst year for drug overdoses in 2020, with 502 deaths, surpassing the previous high of 417 deaths in 2017, which at the time was considered the height of the opioid crisis. Last year, Maine averaged 42 drug overdose deaths per month and initial reports suggest the state logged 58 confirmed or suspected overdose deaths in January, the worst month for fatal overdoses in a year and much higher than January 2020.

Experts have said the pandemic has likely worsened the opioid crisis. A January report from the Attorney General’s Office notes that the fatal-overdose increase in Maine mirrors national trends and is “likely due at least in part to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and related mitigation measures: isolation, avoidance of or difficulty accessing medical services, and alterations in the illicit drug supply.”

The most common cause of overdose deaths in January was non-pharmaceutical fentanyl, according to a report compiled by Dr. Marcella Sorg of the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. Fifty-two percent of January’s overdose deaths were in the 40-59 age demographic, and 62 percent were among men.

Gordon Smith, Maine’s director of opioid response, said Maine’s opioid response strategic plan includes fentanyl test strips, along with the anti-overdose drug naloxone. The state has purchased 35,000 doses of naloxone to distribute across Maine, and needle exchange programs have also been distributing the fentanyl test trips to intravenous drug users.

Fentanyl test strips Associated Press

For people who use drugs but aren’t ready to seek treatment, it is important to have options like naloxone and the test strips available, Smith said. But there are limitations with the test strips, which do not show how much fentanyl is present and can produce false results depending on the product being tested, he said.

“It’s better than nothing,” Smith said. “It’s one more piece of harm reduction and we need more harm reduction in the state of Maine.”

The small paper strips cost about $1 a piece and are similar to pregnancy tests or urine tests. One end of the strip is placed in a mixture of water and drug residue and then, after several minutes, the strip indicates whether or not fentanyl has been detected.

Some studies have found the strips reduce the risk of fatal overdoses. They may prompt someone to use less of a drug or make sure someone is available to help them if they experience symptoms of an overdose.

Similar to past debates over access to clean needles and naloxone, there has been resistance to widespread use of fentanyl test strips. A top health official in the Trump administration strongly opposed their use, saying they aren’t likely to deter people from using drugs and could provide a false sense of security that drugs can he injected safely.

More recently, however, an official in the Biden administration said it may expand access to the test strips. Other states and cities also have already expanded access to the strips in recent months.

Westbrook police Chief Sean Lally said his department will receive about 300 fentanyl test kits to hand out to people with substance use disorders. The kits will primarily be distributed by the city’s recovery liaison, who connects drug users to treatment programs and other resources.

“Our main goal is to prevent overdose deaths,” Lally said.

Lally said distributing test strips while trying to connect drug users to recovery resources is important.

“Substance use disorder is a public health crisis,” he said. “We should not be steering people toward prison. We should be steering people toward treatment.”

MacKenzie, the Kennebunk police chief, said the fentanyl kits his department receives will be distributed across York County by a drug and alcohol counselor through the OPTIONS Initiative, which dispatches mobile response teams in Maine counties to communities with high overdose rates. Police officers can also hand out kits if they respond to an overdose.

“If you have the opportunity to put something out there to potentially save a life, you want to have that done,” MacKenzie said.

In Portland, the police department’s Behavioral Health Unit has been considering the use of fentanyl test strips and has identified a potential source for them, according to city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin.

“In addition to this important harm reduction tool, with the increased capacity of our behavioral health unit there are now more opportunities to respond to substance use and behavioral health calls from the community with the right care, in the right place at the right time,” she said.

More information about substance use disorder support and resources is available by calling 211, emailing [email protected], visiting the Maine 211 website, visiting the state’s Know Your Options resource page or visiting the DHHS Office of Behavioral Health’s resource page.

Note: This article was amended Thursday, March 11, to correct and update the list of participating Maine police departments and correct the name of the Police Assisted Addiction & Recovery Initiative.

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