People used chalk to write messages for the 2019 International Overdose Awareness Day on Bangor's Pickering Square. Some of them remembered specific people who had died of drug overdoses and included pleas for wider access to harm reduction resources such as naloxone. Credit: Charles Eichacker / BDN

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Robert W. Glover is an associate professor of political science and honors at the University of Maine. Karyn Sporer is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maine. These are their views and do not express those of the University of Maine System or the University of Maine. Both are members of the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

Mainers are dying from drug overdose in unprecedented numbers. Data from the first half of 2020 show a 27 percent increase in overdose deaths over the last half of 2019, with 82 percent of these deaths involving at least one opioid. Preliminary evidence suggests this increase stems from a combination of factors fueled, in part, by COVID-19: social isolation, disruptions in treatment and recovery programs and an unstable, increasingly dangerous illicit drug supply.

As harrowing as these statistics are, the loss would be greater if not for the recent efforts by a compassionate and dedicated community of service providers, grassroots advocates and policymakers. These adaptations can guide our longer-term drug policy reform efforts.

Outpatient treatment clinics providing medication-assisted treatment have adapted their work, allowing patients to take home multiple doses and prevent daily trips to their health care provider. Maine has also seen a continued effort at robust distribution and training on the use of Narcan, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose. Narcan has saved hundreds of lives across the state.

The tragic death earlier this year of harm reduction advocate Jesse Harvey prompted renewed discussion, at both the state and municipal level, of safer consumption sites for people who use drugs. These would be secure locations where individuals could administer previously obtained drugs with trained staff ready to help in the event of complications or overdose.

In February, the Mills administration issued Executive Order 27, which includes a temporary suspension of “one-to-one” limits on needle exchange. Previously, those seeking hygienic hypodermic needles were required to turn in an equivalent number of used syringes. The order also enables flexibility in mail delivery services and outreach, needle exchange site locations, and hours of operation.

Harm reduction strategies like needle exchanges, safe consumption sites, and Narcan are beneficial for people with substance use disorder, their families, and their communities. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests increased limits on needle exchange, for example, help to prevent infectious disease (like viral hepatitis and HIV) and reduce syringe litter in public spaces. Safer consumption sites serve as a gateway to harm reduction resources and support for recovery. Narcan, which rapidly reverses opioid overdose, saves the lives of Mainers with opioid-related substance use disorder on a daily basis, ensuring their families stay intact.

As we begin a new state legislative session, these temporary strategies form the basis for a long-term strategy that both supports and protects Maine people with substance use disorder and eliminates needless overdose deaths. And more ambitious strategies not yet pursued should be part of the conversation.

The rigid drug laws of the past have proven inadequate and unpopular. The last election saw a nationwide rebuke from voters of the decades-long, punitive “war on drugs.” Numerous states legalized adult recreational use or medical use of marijuana, and voters in Oregon and Washington, D.C. approved even more sweeping decriminalization measures. Drug policy reform was on the ballot in nine states; each measure won with relatively strong support. Robust proposals for across-the-board decriminalization, similar to what voters just approved in Oregon, have been introduced in Maine previously and are likely to return. The courage to undertake ambitious drug policy reform exists here in Maine.

COVID-19 has forced all of us to adapt, and many of those adaptations will become part of the “new normal.” We can think about harm reduction and recovery efforts in the same way. The only acceptable drug policy of the future will be one that is flexible and accessible for all Maine people; it must be grounded in compassion and designed to meet people where they are.

Opportunity lies in our pain and in our grief. We should let 2020’s challenging experience with COVID-19 be the gateway to considering long-overdue steps towards sensible drug policy reform.