As we look for solutions to our unprecedented drug problem, our state is in uncharted territory.
Fortunately, community leaders across the state recognize we need to change our approach. I especially am heartened though not surprised by the way Maine’s law enforcement community has stepped up to offer innovative ways to address the problem at its roots.
We don’t have official numbers for all of last year yet, but according to the state attorney general there were 174 overdose deaths through the first nine months of 2015. From those numbers, the attorney general projected between 230 and 250 overdose deaths through the end of the year.
Beyond these numbers, we know addiction is causing incredible suffering for people struggling with substance abuse and their loved ones. The main reason for high opiate use is too many Mainers have become addicted, often because of medically prescribed opiates. They are not criminals, but people desperately looking for a way to ease the pains they carry — always made worse by their disease.
“I see this firsthand every day,” Baileyville police Chief Robert Fitzsimmons told lawmakers earlier this month. “I’ve lost almost an entire generation of my 20-somethings to my 40-somethings to drugs. I’m here to ask you today for help for my county, my community, for my families and for me.”
The policies we’ve relied on in the past to address drug use just aren’t enough to stem the crisis. As Fitzsimmons and officers across the state see firsthand, it’s time for a different tack.
Take, for example, Operation HOPE, an initiative the Scarborough Police Department launched in September. It allows local law enforcement to be a resource to people struggling with addiction by helping them get treatment.
As of early January, 93 people had already come to the Scarborough police and entered into treatment through Operation HOPE. The Portland Police Department announced last month it would implement a similar initiative, Law Enforcement Addiction Advocacy Program, or LEAAP.
Both are modeled on successful initiatives used in other parts of the country that bring together treatment providers and law enforcement to help break the cycle of addiction.
Local law enforcement is on the front lines of the drug epidemic, positioning officers uniquely to play a role in the solution. During the public hearing on the Legislature’s bipartisan drug bill, we heard hours of testimony, including by police officers from Scarborough to Bangor to Baileyville.
Their message was that we cannot hope to arrest our way out of this problem. Instead, law enforcement needs resources to not only take drug traffickers off the streets but also to connect people struggling with addiction to treatment options.
In the words of Officer John Gill, coordinator of Operation HOPE, “someone coming forward to ask for assistance with addiction needs help, not handcuffs.”
This message is gathering support in the Legislature, which, in a show of bipartisanship in the face of an urgent problem, came together to unanimously pass the drug bill last month.
In recognition of the multifaceted role law enforcement plays in the solution, that measure includes funding for additional drug enforcement agents as well as grants for innovative law enforcement treatment initiatives. Recognizing the statewide nature of the problem, it also funds the creation of a detoxification center in northern or eastern Maine and access for inpatient and outpatient treatment for the uninsured.
We’re already working on a number of other measures as lawmakers bring forward their contributions to crafting a response. Rep. Mark Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff, has presented a bill to help more police departments launch “diversion programs” such as the initiatives in Scarborough and Portland.
Of course, it will take a truly comprehensive approach to make headway. Prevention, enforcement and treatment are all crucial elements of mustering an adequate response to the drug crisis.
Programs that empower law enforcement to help people seeking treatment are only a piece of that comprehensive approach — there is no “silver bullet” solution — but they’re an excellent example of the forward-thinking policies we must look to as we face this public health and safety emergency.
Rep. Jim Davitt, D-Hampden, is serving his first term in the Maine House and represents Hampden and Newburgh. A professor of Justice Studies at the University of Maine at Augusta, Davitt serves on the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.