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There is no one solution to Maine’s opioid crisis. Savings more lives, at a time of record overdose deaths, requires sustained attention and action. By strengthening Maine’s Good Samaritan law, the Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills have taken one such step together.
This step was made possible by recovery advocates convincingly making the case to strengthen the existing Good Samaritan law, which provides immunity from arrest or prosecution to people who call 911 to report an overdose. The original law passed in 2019. The new law will expand immunity not just to people who call for help, but others at the location who are “rendering aid.” This immunity will not apply to certain crimes, such as aggravated attempted murder, sexual assault or kidnapping.
Gov. Janet Mills and law enforcement opposed an initial version of the update, arguing the expanded immunity was too broad. But advocates, lawmakers and the governor did the hard work of crafting a compromise that was able to gain the necessary support to become law. This work, we believe, will save lives.
“The recovery, harm reduction, and re-entry community in Maine fought tirelessly for this law and we did not waver in our commitment to our community,” Courtney Allen, the organizing director of Maine Recovery Advocacy Project, said in a statement this week. “This was a hard-fought victory, and it signals that Maine is undergoing a revolution about what it means to support people who use drugs. Our fight does not end today though. There is still more work to do. We are committed to building on these wins and continuing to push the conversations both in the legislature and in our communities.”
Importantly, lawmakers from both parties recognized the need to strengthen this law early on in the process. Even before the compromise was reached, the bill had support from both Democrats and Republicans.
“Overdose deaths are preventable. Lawmakers are recognizing that if we want to save lives, we have to stop focusing on punishment,” Democratic bill sponsor Sen. Chloe Maxmin said in a May 9 statement. “This is something lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have agreed on by supporting this bill.”
Republican supporters included Sens. Marianne Moore and Rick Bennett.
“Willing bystanders, wanting to help, should not have to pause and say, ‘Am I going to be arrested if I call 911?’” Moore testified in February.
“Recovery advocates worked tirelessly to make sure this bill became law,” Bennett said in a statement this week. “Many doubted that they would succeed. But they worked hard, they told their stories, they stayed true to the urgency of these times. And they won.”
Bennett added that he is “proud to support a law that will save lives.”
Everyone should be proud to take such a step, and that pride should continue to extend to other measures in the constant work needed to prevent more Mainers from dying of drug overdoses.
“This amendment will protect those who are helping to save a life while not shielding those who are unwilling to help — an important balance that builds on the work of the Good Samaritan law the governor signed in 2019,” Mills spokesperson Lindsay Crete told Maine Public recently. “She is glad that she will be able to sign into law a compromise that makes progress.”
Multiple law enforcement groups testified against Maxmin’s initial bill. At least for the Maine Chiefs of Police Association (MCOPA), the compromise approach seems to have addressed some of their initial concerns.
“We don’t support all of it, but it’s something we can work with for the time being” and then see how it progresses, MCOPA Executive Director Edward Tolan told the BDN editorial board on Tuesday about the final compromise.
This is a good example of policymakers working through disagreements and concerns to produce an updated law that can make a difference across the state. Ultimately, this successful effort to pass a compromise law will save more lives than failing to pass advocates’ preferred Good Samaritan update would have. This certainly isn’t the only step in the ongoing work to address Maine’s overdose epidemic, but it is an important one — and it was made possible by strong advocacy and a willingness to compromise.