This May 10, 2018 photo shows an arrangement of fentanyl test strips in New York. Sales of fentanyl test strips have exploded as a growing number of overdose-prevention programs hand them out to people who use illicit drugs. Credit: Mark Lennihan / AP

As overdose deaths rise, a growing number of Maine police departments are beginning to distribute fentanyl testing kits to those who may come in contact with the potent synthetic opioid.

The Bath and Brunswick police departments are the latest Maine law enforcement agencies to join the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative’s One2One program, which supplies departments with fentanyl testing kits as an engagement and harm reduction tool for people at risk of an overdose.

The kits will allow an individual to test substances for the presence of fentanyl and will also include information about treatment and recovery options.

Brunswick Police Chief Scott Stewart said distributing the test kits does not mean his department condones drug use, or that officers will be testing drugs for people. But he said police departments need to help address the opioid crisis in any way they can.

“Our ultimate job is to save lives. We’d be remiss if we didn’t take this opportunity to try to save someone’s life,” Stewart said.

Fentanyl is up to 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The prevalence of fentanyl, which is often cut into heroin and other drugs, is one of the factors fueling the recent rise in overdose deaths in Maine. Fentanyl was involved in 67 percent of the 502 overdose deaths in 2020, as well as in 69 percent of January’s 58 overdose deaths and 80 percent of February’s 45 overdose deaths, according to state reports.

Supplying test kits to individuals struggling with substance use disorder can help inform them about their possible exposure to fentanyl before using a substance and “help people change their use behavior,” said Allie Hunter, executive director of the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative.

Through a pilot of the One2One program last year, the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative found that 53 percent of the people who received a test kit requested an additional referral for treatment or substance use disorder services, according Hunter.

“Police are on the front lines of the opioid epidemic and have the greatest level of access to individuals at risk for overdose, and therefore are well positioned to provide lifesaving education and support,” Hunter said.

Bath and Brunswick joined police departments in Augusta, Biddeford, Kennebunk, South Portland and Westbrook, which were already participating in the One2One Program. The program also serves police departments in Massachusetts.

Through the program, police departments are supplied with up to 300 test kits, as well as training on how to distribute and utilize the kits to build connections in the community.

In addition to the One2One program, both the Brunswick and Bath police departments are participating in the state’s new OPTIONS initiative, which provides direct recovery support to individuals with substance use disorder. Through this initiative, the police departments are able to refer people in need of help directly to counselors.

Information regarding how an individual can connect with the OPTIONS counselor and other recovery services will be included in the fentanyl test kits being distributed by both departments.

“I see this as an engagement tool,” Bath Police Chief Michael Field said. “Maybe they will take a minute and reach out for help from our counselor.”

Stewart said determining who needs the packets falls under the umbrella of community policing, as many officers interact with the same people on a regular basis and are aware of individuals who may need the kits. Field said his department is working to determine a system for making the test kits available to those who need them.

Both Stewart and Field hope the test kits and packets are one more tool they can utilize to combat the opioid crisis.

“We still have an obligation to enforce the law,” Stewart said. “But our goal is to get people the help they need.”