A lantern honors someone who died from an overdose in an Aug. 31, 2021, file photo. Credit: Hannah Catlin / Aroostook Republican

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.

When the final data are in, Maine is expected to set another gut-wrenching record for opioid deaths in 2022. There were also record overdose deaths in 2021. And in 2020.

Maine has made significant strides in prevention, treatment and recovery services in recent years. And yet we’ve never lost so many people to addiction. So much dedicated and difficult work is being done on the ground to help others, but it still hasn’t been enough.

These numbers, these people we have lost, must be yet another call to action for Maine policymakers. The lesson here is not to give up on policy progress that has been made — without those advancements, like greater access to potentially life saving naloxone, even more Mainers would have died in this terrifying age of fentanyl.

The lesson, or at least part of the lesson, must be to marshal more resources and to challenge past ways of approaching this continued crisis.

Gordon Smith, the director of opioid response for Gov. Janet Mills, recently spoke at a meeting organized by the Bangor-area group Penobscot County Cares. He addressed the number of opioid deaths early in his remarks.

“Every death is not just one person. It’s a whole family, it’s a community, it’s a work site, it’s a school. The impact is profound,” Smith said at the Jan. 12 meeting. “It’s not the only thing that we have to work on. We also have to very much think about the 93 percent of people who are surviving overdoses and connect them to services.”

He added that it was “a very grim year.” There should be no doubt about that, and no doubt that more must be done to save lives in 2023.

“It’s been a very grim two years, and I think now we’re more realistic that these numbers don’t get better just because we hope that they’ll get better each week,” Smith added. “They’ll get better when we put enough resources on the ground to make it better.”

Under the Mills administration, the state has taken welcome steps like increasing access to naloxone, adding more treatment centers and increasing efforts to connect people with recovery. Smith mentioned that the state’s Opioid Response Strategic Action Plan is being updated. This ongoing work is commendable and desperately needed.

The administration, and all of us, need to do something else as well: We need to reassess our past positions and make sure our old ways of thinking and discomfort about certain ideas aren’t standing in the way of saving more lives.

At the Penobscot County Cares meeting, Smith was asked about drug decriminalization and safe injection sites. The Mills administration opposed and lawmakers ultimately voted down a bill last legislative session that would have decriminalized possession of small amounts of scheduled drugs. The same was true with a proposal that would have allowed safe injection sites, which provide a supervised location for drug use with the aim of reducing overdoses, the spread of infectious disease and prosecutions. 

Smith said at the event earlier this month that Mills doesn’t support safe consumption sites, and referenced “pretty depressing” early results in Oregon, where very few people used a new health assessment hotline created as part of the decriminalization effort there.

“I don’t think that we rule out anything. I think we keep an open mind,” he said.

In 2021 when the Mills administration opposed the decriminalization bill, an official from the Maine Department of Public Safety testified that the department did “not find that the decriminalization of illicit drugs is a solution to the substance use and overdose crisis in our communities.”

We disagree. We have supported and continue to support the push to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs that are presumed to be for personal use rather than trafficking. The evidence, through years of experience, clearly shows that we cannot arrest our way out of this crisis.

As for Oregon’s recent experience, that should inform Maine’s implementation of some sort of decriminalization for small amounts of drugs, not preclude it. Plus, results in Portugal are better established and compelling. We hope that Mills and her administration will revisit and reconsider their position on this issue.

State officials are not the only ones who must reflect after another tragic year of overdose deaths, however. We must ask the same of ourselves. Steps like safe injection sites have frankly felt like a bridge too far for us in the past, and that is something we must reassess.

We don’t have all the answers. Addressing opioid deaths is incredibly complicated, but we know this much to be true: Across the state, we cannot let our own discomfort stand in the way of saving lives.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...