The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
This editorial discusses drug use and substance use disorder. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, call 211 or visit 211maine.org.
More than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in the year from May 2020 to April 2021. That’s a grim new record, which marks a 30 percent increase over the prior year span, according to new data released last month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Maine, 502 people died of overdoses last year. That had been the deadliest year on record in Maine’s opioid epidemic. The state has likely already exceeded that sad milestone this year and there are likely to be more than 600 overdose deaths this year.
Given these trends, it might be easy to feel that saving the lives of those who are struggling with substance use disorder is hopeless.
It is not, says Gordon Smith, Maine’s director of opioid response.
These numbers come amid a global pandemic that has killed nearly 800,000 Americans (more than 1,300 in Maine) and disrupted many aspects of our lives, including work, education and health care.
It is hard to imagine, but if Maine didn’t have the many interventions it currently does — such as overdose-reversing medication, liaisons to connect people with services and new treatment facilities — the number of overdoses and overdose deaths would likely be much higher, Smith said in an interview with the Bangor Daily News editorial board.
He ticked off a long list of things that aren’t working well: There are not enough beds in treatment facilities. Those facilities that do have available beds sometimes don’t have enough staff to accept more patients. Too few jails offer treatment services to inmates. Fentanyl, an extremely potent synthetic painkiller, is mixed in with many drugs, including opioid pills, heroin, marijuana and cocaine.
He then listed the many things that Maine is doing to combat the opioid epidemic. Naloxone or Narcan, an overdose reversing medication, has been given to thousands of Mainers in recent years. Without this intervention, it is possible that hundreds more Mainers would have died of overdoses. Narcan has saved 15 people for everyone who has died from an overdose in Maine, Smith told the Portland Press Herald.
For the first time in July, the state reported the number of people who were treated with naloxone after overdosing. Between January and May of this year, 625 overdoses were reversed by community members, including groups that have received naloxone from the state, and 18 by law enforcement who administered naloxone, according to the data. Another 1,539 overdoses were treated in emergency departments and 793 by EMS departments; it is unclear if naloxone was used in those instances.
Smith cited other positives: A new residential treatment center in Springfield, in rural Penobscot County, is opening, as are new methadone treatment facilities in Saco and Presque Isle, the first new methadone clinics in Maine in years.
Liaisons, who connect Mainers with treatment and support services, are in place in every county. With a grant from the New England Regional Opioid Initiative, a navigator, who will be in court every day when people are arraigned on drug charges, began work in Washington County this week. The navigator will meet with people after their arraignment to connect them with resources to assist with housing, employment, substance use treatment and other needs.
Yet, about 50 Maine people are dying of drug overdoses every month, so clearly these and other efforts are not enough, Smith concedes.
He knows it is a hard ask, but people need to be patient, he says.
We appreciate Smith’s perspective, but it is hard to balance patience with peoples’ lives. Opening more treatment centers, increasing the availability of Narcan and connecting Mainers with needed services are positive developments. Yet, our county jails are crowded with people who are awaiting court hearings, many of them arrested for drug possession who then languish in jail, often without access to treatment and other needed services. Nearly half of all drug-related arrests in 2018 were for possessing small amounts of drugs.
Many of these people might not be in jail if Maine decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs. Maine lawmakers earlier this year initially passed a bill to eliminate criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of scheduled drugs, like heroin, oxycodone and cocaine. Possessing and selling larger quantities of these drugs would remain crimes. The measure was opposed by the governor, attorney general and many law enforcement officials. It died in the Legislature when the House and Senate could not agree on differing versions of the legislation.
As the state’s approach — and the work of numerous groups and providers show — there is no one solution to Maine’s opioid crisis. Every potential viable solution should remain on the table.