In 2021, 636 Mainers died from a drug overdose. That’s almost two a day. Twelve every week. In 2020, there were 504 deaths. In 2019, 380.

Now, if you’re like me and you’re bad at math and statistics, you might be wondering, are those numbers bad? And yes. I’ve done the research, and those numbers are really bad.

The numbers are also going in the wrong direction. Every time I see a new death in the news, or another obituary for someone my age, it feels personal. I’m an addict. Some people think of me as a good addict, because I’m well-educated and well-spoken and come from a nice, white, middle-class family and was addicted to a legal substance that can be bought at every corner store. But there’s no such thing as a good addict or a bad addict. There’s just addiction and the people living with it. The only thing separating me from the fallen is sheer, dumb luck.

Clearly, our current approaches to dealing with the problem are not working. For the next few weeks, I am going to be talking about solutions that Mainers are working on to help claw back lives from the overdose crisis. Because the galling thing about this crisis is that every overdose is preventable.

An overdose is a medical emergency. And like any medical emergency, the chances of survival increase the faster you can get professional help. Right now, Maine, like many states, has a “Good Samaritan” law, which protects people who are overdosing and need medical assistance, as well as a person who makes a good-faith effort to get them that medical assistance, from being arrested at the scene for possession of drugs, drug paraphernalia (i.e., pipes), hypodermic needles, or for violation of probation. It’s a good start. But many advocates think it’s too limited, and I agree. We should make it as easy as possible for someone who witnesses a drug overdose to call 911 as fast as possible, without wasting time trying to figure out if they are likely to get arrested.

For example: What if your buddy overdoses and there’s a stolen car in the driveway of the house you’re in? Maybe you had nothing to do with the theft, but if you’re at the scene, and drugs are involved, what cop isn’t going to arrest you for suspicion of theft? Or what if a sex worker has a client who snorts what he thinks is a line of cocaine and it turns out to have been tainted with fentantyl? Do you call 911 and risk being arrested for prostitution? And before you get all judgmental about bystanders hesitating before calling 911, please remember that being arrested can threaten your life, your freedom and your finances. A criminal record can prevent you from getting a job or an apartment. You could lose custody of your children. Now imagine weighing all these possibilities as someone is lying on the ground turning blue from lack of oxygen to the bloodstream.

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L.D. 1862, a bill being debated in the Maine Legislature, would expand Maine’s Good Samaritan law. It’s sponsored by Sen. Chloe Maxmim, a fellow Maine millennial. It would shield everyone at the scene of an overdose from arrest or prosecution for all non-violent crimes, probation and bail condition violations. I think it’s a good idea, if your primary goal is to make saving lives as easy as possible (which mine is). If your primary goal is to make it as easy as possible for cops to arrest people, then it’s not the bill for you.

As a society, we are slowly coming around to seeing addiction as the disease that it is, rather than a series of personal bad decisions. Even most police officers agree that we can’t arrest our way out of the drug problem. Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck was literally quoted a few years ago when he was Portland’s police chief as saying “we can’t arrest our way out of this.” So I was disappointed to see that he testified against L.D. 1862 on behalf of the Mills administration. Not surprised – cops gonna cop, after all – but disappointed.

Sauschuck said that he opposed the bill because it would give temporary immunity to people “who happened to be at the location only because someone else did the right thing.” But passing L.D. 1862 would make it much more likely that someone at the location of an overdose would do the right thing. Have you ever tried to get five people to agree on what movie to watch? Now imagine trying to get five people trying to agree on a course of action that could end with some of them in prison. And remember, after about three minutes without enough oxygen, brain damage sets in, and opioids kill by suppressing your breathing.

As the rising numbers of dead bodies can attest (380 – 504 – 636), our current methods aren’t working. Trying new things is scary. I get that. And Mainers really hate the idea that someone might be “getting away with” a criminal activity. I understand that too. But at some point, you have to put your money where your mouth is. If you really believe we can’t arrest our way out of the overdose crisis, you should probably try making fewer arrests. Maine is a small state. We can’t afford to be taking such heavy losses every year. Overdose deaths are preventable deaths. L.D. 1862 will help prevent some. It should pass.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @mainemillennial


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