Recovery advocates call for decriminalization as Mainers remember lives lost to overdose

To mark International Overdose Awareness Day in Maine on Wednesday, recovery advocates sounded the alarm on the record number of overdose deaths that occurred in the state this year and called for an “all-hands-on-deck” approach from lawmakers to address the crisis, including decriminalizing possession. 

“This day was established to raise awareness about overdoses deaths,” Courtney Allen, policy director of the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project (ME-RAP), said in a statement. “We have both mourned and raged together because we know that every single death was preventable. But grief and anger will not solve the problems our community faces.”

ME-RAP has led a coalition of people in recovery — many of whom have lost people close to them to overdose — to pass significant policy changes in Maine over the last two years. 

Earlier this year, they helped pass expanded protections under Maine’s Good Samaritan law for people at the scene of an overdose, allowing them to call for help without fear of prosecution. The new law is considered one of the strongest of its kind in the country.

Last year, ME-RAP organizers pushed to pass a law ending criminal penalties for syringe possession

Now, the group is laying out the policy fight ahead. 

“We need an all hands on deck approach: prevention efforts that center the voices of young people and the realities of drug use; harm reduction for those who still use drugs, including the protection and expansion of Narcan access in our communities; and treatment and other recovery supports for those who want them–including dramatically increasing the number of community-based detox and voluntary in-patient treatment options around the state,” Allen said.

“Finally, we must end the criminalization of possession of substances for personal use,” she continued. “Substance use disorder is a disease. A symptom of that disease is the use of drugs. Arresting people for possessing drugs is arresting them for a symptom of their disorder.”

Overdose rates are spiking nationally and in Maine. The Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine found that the rate of overdose fatalities in the state has risen to 53 deaths per month during the first five months of 2022, compared to 49 deaths per month during the same period last year.

There were a total of 636 overdose deaths in 2021 — amounting to nearly two a day — which was a higher number than in previous years.

Mills to award $1.6 million in grants for rural treatment centers

Allen said that a major hurdle to bringing those grim numbers down is the underinvestment in community-based detox centers for people who cannot afford expensive rehab services. 

“Every day, we field calls from people wanting treatment, and we have to tell them that Maine only has two detox centers — a total of 20 beds — available to people who are uninsured,” she said. “For those who manage to get into detox or in-patient rehab, we know they will most likely be released with no safe place to go when they get out, jeopardizing their newfound recovery.”

Allen added, “We are also all too aware that the grassroots recovery community centers that do exist in Maine are operating on shoestring budgets and hopes and dreams.”

Recognizing this problem, the Mills administration announced Wednesday plans to allocate $1.9 million in federally-funded grants to expand funding in rural Maine for treatment centers.

The grants, which the administration expects to award in September, can be used by centers to invest in start-up costs and staff training and development. The funding comes on top of additional state funding to increase the number of available beds for residential treatment and medically supervised withdrawal in Maine.

“Maine is within the crushing grip of an unrelenting epidemic, worsened by the effects of the pandemic and the increased presence of highly lethal fentanyl. It’s killing a record number of Maine people — people who are our family, friends, and neighbors,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement. “We are putting these funds to work to expand the availability of substance use disorder treatment in rural Maine so that we can save lives, put more people on the road to recovery, and, in time, turn the tide on this deadly epidemic.”

Photo: A 2020 vigil at the Maine State House calling on lawmakers to decriminalize drug possession to address the overdose crisis. | Beacon

About Dan Neumann

Avatar photoDan studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North's interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago's West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at dan(at)mainebeacon.com.

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