BANGOR, Maine — Throwing drug users into jail for committing minor crimes to feed their addictions has done little to stop the spread of drug abuse in the region, an addiction specialist said Wednesday at the launch of the city’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion pilot program.
“I’ve seen that incarceration and many of our traditional responses to substance use disorders are largely ineffective,” said Haley Beem, a licensed alcohol drug abuse counselor at Higher Ground Services in Brewer. Beem indicated she herself is a person in recovery.
But if drug users who commit low-level, nonviolent crimes are provided with community-based services — drug or mental health support, healthcare, housing, job training — it can change their lives for the better, said Gretchen Ziemer, criminal justice coordinator for Health Equity Alliance.
“This is not a carrot and stick program,” she told those who gathered Wednesday at the group’s headquarters on Pine Street to kick off the LEAD program. “After the police department has initiated the diversion, the arrest is off the table.”
She said multiple community stakeholders are involved with the program and partnerships have been established with just about every agency in the region to help make it work. Accountability also is a huge part of the pilot program. An annual report will be given to the police department to demonstrate the progress of enrollees, point out the programs they’ve accessed, and show whether anyone in the program committed another crime. If the person breaks the law again, they will not be protected by their enrollment in the program, Ziemer said.
Each person in the LEAD program will be placed with a case manager who will work to address that person’s critical needs first, which most often involves food or housing, Ziemer said. Next, the case manager will work with the person on other steps designed to improve the individual’s life, which could include education, getting clean or simply getting a vehicle fixed so the person can find a job, she said.
“That caseworker is going to provide wraparound services in a harm reduction model, which really means looking at what the person’s immediate needs are, and moving from there,” Ziemer said. “It’s not a cookie cutter program.”
Enrollees will make their own decisions about what resources to use, Ziemer said, adding that once a case manager is hired, which is expected to happen soon, that person is expected to handle at least 30 people in the pilot diversion program.
“There is a recovery component, but it’s not required,” Ziemer said. “The most important thing is to help folks be stable and healthy.”
Health Equity Alliance, which successfully applied for funding for the voluntary LEAD pre-booking diversion program, is a regional public health agency that expanded into the greater Bangor area in July 2014 when it adopted the Eastern Maine AIDS Network.
The group got a $188,000 diversion program planning grant from the Open Society Foundations, formerly the Open Society Institute, which was created by philanthropist George Soros “to build vibrant and tolerant societies whose governments are accountable and open to the participation of all people,” according to its website. The city is not contributing any funding, according to City Manager Cathy Conlow.
“It’s a radical transition” to a different way of handling drug users, Kenney Miller, Health Equity Alliance executive director, said Wednesday.
The program follows in the footsteps of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program launched in Seattle, Washington, in 2011, which is considered to be one of the most innovative drug policy programs in the country, Miller said.
There are five other LEAD programs across the country and data shows that, “LEAD participants have been 60 percent less likely to be arrested in the first six months [after enrollment],” he said. “And it has caused a significant reduction in costs to the criminal justice system.”
Bangor police Officer Jason McAmbley, the department’s community relations officer and new liaison for the LEAD program, said that in Seattle, one enrollee was arrested more than 50 times for a small amount of drugs before he was accepted into the program. That person bettered their life and “came back to offer peer support,” he said.
Bangor officers will decide at the point of an arrest whether to handcuff the lawbreaker or call McAmbley to see if the person qualifies for diversion. If he agrees the person fits LEAD criteria, the case manager would be contacted to meet their new client.
“People don’t graduate,” Ziemer said. “But there is [a point] when folks can say, ‘I’m ready to move on.’”
The Portland Police Department also offers a program called the Law Enforcement Addiction Advocacy Program in southern Maine that “works to address the opioid epidemic through education, community awareness, and the facilitation of treatment,” the city’s website states. A handful of other Maine communities have similar programs designed to address the state’s drug epidemic.
Maine averaged more than one drug overdose death per day in 2016, with 387 lives stolen, representing a huge increase from the 60 reported in 2000, according to data released last month by Attorney General Janet Mills.
Bangor police responded to 21 reported drug overdoses — or an average of one every three days — in the first two months of the year that involved 18 men and three woman, Sgt. Tim Cotton said Tuesday. Only one of the Bangor drug poisonings resulted in a death, he said, adding that officers dispensed Narcan, an opioid antidote, six times in efforts to reverse the overdose and help save the person’s life.
“These are sobering numbers,” Bangor police Chief Mark Hathaway said in an email. “While not necessarily a surprise [to law enforcement], it perhaps illustrates the serious public health crisis we are experiencing along with nearly every community in our region, across our state and throughout our country.”
He said establishing the LEAD program is a step in the right direction.
“While we realize this program will not fit every situation we do believe it is a creative option that will hopefully guide folks toward treatment in lieu of a courtroom,” Hathaway said.
“I don’t think it’s going to take very long to fill up these slots,” McAmbley said at the end of Wednesday’s gathering.
“Nobody wants to be an addict,” the officer said.