Drug overdoses continue to kill Mainers at an alarmingly high rate – 58 alone in January, more than in any month in 2020, when the state set the record for drug deaths.

Years, if not decades, into the drug crisis, that fact does not raise a lot of hope.

But if Maine is going to slow this deadly epidemic, we have no time to be disheartened. Instead, it’s time to take what we’ve learned and use it to save lives.

In Augusta, police have learned to treat substance use disorder as the disease it is – something that requires care, not punishment. Dropping someone with the disorder into the criminal justice system doesn’t solve much, they’ve found, and more often than not makes things worse.

Now, when calls come in related to an overdose or to substance use disorder in general, a licensed behavioral health clinician on staff will respond, too. She’ll offer short-term counseling and information on resources and treatment, as well as follow-up meetings.

The person in need will “get treatment, not a court date,” Chief Jared Mills told the Kennebec Journal in February.

And, importantly, if the person is not ready for drug treatment, there will be a focus on harm reduction – including encouraging the use of clean needles, fentanyl testing strips and Narcan, the overdose-reversing drug.

Harm reduction is a critical component to reducing deaths from drugs, even if it is uncomfortable for some. It’s best to keep people from getting addicted to harmful narcotics in the first place, and there must be proven treatment and recovery programs in place when people need them.

But there will always be people using drugs, and those drugs are getting more powerful, leading to more overdoses and deaths. Drug policy has to recognize that reality and work to reduce the harms that come out of drug use. Every dose of naloxone keeps someone breathing, and sometimes that’s the best you can hope for.

“We’ve got to find innovative ways to keep them alive,” Gordon Smith, the state’s opioid response director, told the Editorial Board last week.

Smith’s office is spearheading OPTIONS, or Overdose Prevention Through Intensive Outreach, Naloxone and Safety, which is funding Augusta’s program. OPTIONS is putting mobile overdose response units in each county, focusing on high-risk populations, such as people who recently survived an overdose, or who are just out of incarceration.

As stated in Gov. Mills’ opioid plan, it’s important to keep deadly drugs out of our communities, as much as that is possible, and to make sure parents and children have the support they need to live full, healthy lives. It’s important to have treatment and recovery resources available wherever and whenever people need them.

But there are lives on the line right now, and to save them our communities are going to have to embrace harm reduction.

Most police departments began this epidemic with a tough-on-drugs approach.

Some in Maine, however, were among the first to acknowledge that no number of arrests would stop the drug epidemic. Police in Scarborough and Waterville, as well as other towns and cities, began offering treatment to people with substance use disorder when many officials were seeking more harsh prison terms.

Now, with the program in Augusta, modeled after others in Lewiston and Portland, police are again showing how to face the drug epidemic with realism – and even optimism.


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