If there was any doubt before, there should be none now: The first and highest priority for police responding to the scene of a drug overdose is the health and safety of the person who is overdosing – and there is no close second.

As the legislative session wound down Monday, lawmakers approved a bill that would give Maine one of the nation’s strongest Good Samaritan laws, protecting from prosecution anyone who is rendering aid to someone experiencing a drug overdose. Gov. Mills is expected to sign.

In doing so, they are effectively trading ineffective and mostly minor arrests for the lives of Mainers, which are being lost at a rate of nearly two a day to an addiction crisis that shows no signs of letting up.

It’s a trade Maine should make every day. Now it’s up to law enforcement – police and the courts – to make it work. To do so, they’ll have to reset the relationship between police and people living with addiction so that everyone understands the focus is on saving lives.

The bill builds on the 2019 Good Samaritan law, which shields the person who calls 911 from arrest or prosecution for some crimes. Under a compromise agreed upon to gain the governor’s signature, the recent bill expands protections to include anyone who is “rendering aid,” which could include calling 911, administering CPR or simply keeping an eye on someone until help arrives.

That’s not as strong as we would have liked. We preferred the language in the original bill, from Sen. Chloe Maxmin, a Nobleboro Democrat, which would have shielded everyone at an overdose from arrest for nonviolent crimes.

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But the compromise will still save lives. Too often, people at the scene of an overdose are forced to decide whether or not to call for medical aid and put themselves at risk of losing their own freedom. They have to make that decision, which can ruin lives either way, in a panic.

As we know now, those situations often end in tragedy: Last year, 636 Mainers died from a drug overdose, a 23 percent increase over the record number of deaths from the year before. It was part of a record-setting year for overdose deaths across the country, and some of those deaths could have been avoided if someone had called 911.

The fatal epidemic is driven by deadly fentanyl, which is being sold on its own and mixed in with other drugs, leaving people unsure of what they are taking and vulnerable to overdose.

Police have focused on keeping those drugs out of people’s hands. But that strategy has not worked. Even though 1 in every 11 arrests is for drugs, and most of those for simple possession, according to a recent study, overdoses continue to climb, while the arrests make it more difficult for someone to overcome addiction.

All the Good Samaritan law asks is that when police are called to the scene of an overdose – and they are often the first to arrive – they set aside that strategy for a moment and focus solely on helping the person on the ground.

Police were largely against expanding the law, saying it was not necessary and that it would allow too many criminals to go free.

But now it will become law, and police will have to send the message that they are on board – that in cases of drug overdose, they are there to help revive someone, not scour the scene looking for minor crimes. If law enforcement officials fall short, then the courts should remind them, tossing any inappropriate arrests, as the law dictates.

It will take a consistent effort by law enforcement to show that a call to 911 will bring help, not prosecution – that it will save lives, not make them worse.


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