There’s no shortage of blame whenever the drug epidemic reaches a new awful milestone. But it’s not blame that will save lives.

Instead, in Maine and across the country, we have to use the tools available to keep people alive while we focus on ramping up treatment and addressing prevention and the root causes of addiction.

If someone is casting blame for the increasing deaths by overdose without advocating for harm reduction, and for better health care, more affordable housing and better conditions for low-income workers, then they simply are not serious about fixing the problem.

For the rest of us, there’s work to do. New data released last week showed that from April 2020 to April 2021, more than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdose, marking the first time the death toll has reached six figures in any 12-month period.

That’s 275 dead every day, representing a 28.5% increase from the same period a year earlier, fueled by the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl as well as the isolation and disruption of the COVID pandemic.

And all indications are that it has only gotten worse in the months since, with deaths by overdose expected to set another record in 2021.

In all this death, the United States is virtually on its own. The nationwide drug death rate is 21.1 deaths a year per 100,000 people, far more than any other wealthy country; France is 0.6 per 100,000 while Germany is 1.7.

And that doesn’t tell the whole story. In West Virginia, 90 people per every 100,000 die in a year from drug overdose, while in Washington, D.C., the rate is 70 per 100,000.

In Maine, the rate is 39 per 100,000, 12th-highest in the country.

Years of experience have proved what works, even if we don’t follow it nearly enough. In the short term, people who misuse drugs need access to clean needles, as well as the other services those programs provide. They need fentanyl test strips, which can alert a person to the presence of the dangerous drug, which is often laced into other narcotics or made into counterfeit pills.

They also need access to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone. Though it has been distributed widely in Maine, some law enforcements agencies here still haven’t adopted its use, and its use remains similarly spotty throughout the U.S.

Harm reduction also means changing how law enforcement treats people with addiction. Maine’s laws, like in many states across the country, treat drug crimes too harshly. People won’t find the help they need in jail, and it makes it less likely they’ll get their lives in order once they are out, and more likely they’ll overdose.

Finally, it means being open to safe injection sites, where people who are using drugs can use them under supervision, without the threat of overdosing alone, one of the main drivers of crisis, particularly during the pandemic.

Safe injection sites may be unappealing to many Americans, but that doesn’t make them any less effective in saving lives.

That will no doubt bring cries from people looking to score political points by stigmatizing people with addiction. Some of them will call for more arrests and harsher punishments.

Clearly, however, the approach to addiction that backgrounds or sidelines harm reduction in favor of punishment and stigma is not working. If someone is asking for more of the same, they are simply not serious in trying to solve this ever-growing crisis.

Instead, the only humane and moral response is to save as many lives as possible, now.


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