Support is growing for a bill offered as a new response to drug abuse in Maine, where overdose deaths have risen from 163 to 208 in just three years.
State Rep. Mark Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff, said his legislation would create pilot projects in eight regions of the state where low-level offenders would be offered community-based treatment and support services instead of a jail cell.
For years, Sanford police Chief Thomas Connolly said he has watched Maine communities battle the effects of drug abuse through a singular strategy that relies exclusively on its police departments.
But the number of drug arrests involving heroin quadrupled between 2010 and 2014, and Connolly said the numbers tell the story when it comes to Maine’s war on drugs.
“I guess you could probably say at this point that we’ve lost,” Connolly said.
Connolly, members of the Maine Mayors Coalition and lawmakers are backing a bill sponsored by Dion. Known as the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program, or LEAD, the measure would take $2 million from the state budget to create eight pilot projects that would focus on enforcement, treatment and prevention to curb the use of opioid drugs.
Community-based treatment instead of incarceration is an approach Connolly said is long overdue.
“We’ve been fighting it, trying to interdict drugs coming into our country, and it doesn’t work,” Connolly said. “We’ve been attacking the supply, and it doesn’t work. With an addictive drug like heroin, you have to look at nontraditional new ways to do things.”
“We can’t simply enforce our way out of this problem,” Brewer Mayor Bev Uhlenhake said, speaking for the Maine Mayors Coalition before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which was reviewing Dion’s bill Thursday.
Uhlenhake said she fully supports the prosecution of drug dealers but that the LEAD program would be a tool to help drug abusers overcome their addiction.
“This bill proposes a local-state partnership to working with Maine people struggling with addiction,” Uhlenhake said. “We need to wrap ourselves around the entire problem, and we need to wrap ourselves around the people struggling with it. Maine municipalities need the state to step up and help us address the crisis.”
Kenney Miller of the Maine Harm Reduction Alliance said the drug diversion bill would provide major assistance to offenders by helping them secure appropriate treatment and support services such as housing, health care, job training and mental health services.
“Under LEAD, law enforcement becomes an ally, not the enemy,” Miller said. “They become a resource, an access point for services and opportunity for treatment and support.”
But what kind of drug treatment and how would it be delivered has not been determined. There is no consensus at the State House over which opioid treatments are the most effective.
Strategies range from peer-to-peer support to medication-assisted therapy to long-term rehab, all of which increase in cost at each progressive step and most of which is in short supply.
Dion said his bill isn’t intended as a single solution.
“I think the debate on drug treatment, drug control, drug enforcement is lacking for the cross-discipline evidence that we can take a look at to make some decisions,” he said.
Dion said his bill will help provide some of that evidence that can be gathered through the results of the eight pilot projects and through consultations among leaders in the respective communities where the program will be tested.