2018-01-18 / Editorial

Drug overdoses are killing us – what we can do

Legislative Lowdown
by Rep. Martin Grohman

Last week I wrote a column on some of the basics of opioids and the scope of the opioid crisis. I’d like to dedicate this column to a series of recommendations and ideas. Solving the opioid crisis will not be simple. In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s so complex, with problems so intertwined, that it cannot be solved without an all out effort by health care, criminal justice and human services agencies working together.

Some of these policies are seen as controversial. In particular, some have been highly against reviving people who have overdosed with naloxone (also known as Narcan). But I believe no life should be wasted and recovery is only possible if the person is alive. While the Blaine House, the Board of Pharmacy and attorney general dither over this pressing issue, 48 other states have moved ahead with over-the-counter sales of naloxone. It saves lives.

Fighting this epidemic the right way now will save money in the long term. In addition to the mental, personal, family and criminal costs of substance use disorder, there is a massive health cost to society. The annual economic cost to the nation (and taxpayers) is estimated to be $442 billion, so clearly we must act smarter.

There is no single path to recovery that works for everyone, but I have studied this epidemic as your state legislator and I believe I can make some basic recommendations.

First, we should extend the availability of recovery coach training. Recovery is a lifelong journey requiring courage and commitment. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines it as a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives and strive to reach their full potential. But transitioning back into life from a hospital, treatment center or from jail is not easy. Recovery coaches offer support to individuals; help them work on life goals such as relationships, work and education; and help them navigate the needs and barriers they may have for their recovery.

Second, we should expand use of medication assisted treatment. This generally means using either methadone or buprenorphine in combination with counseling services and is considered the gold standard for treating an opioid use disorder. With a high relapse and overdose rate associated with opioids, medication assisted treatment significantly decreases the relapse rate and ensures someone will stay in recovery. We are fortunate to have five services that offer medication assisted treatment in Biddeford.

People who participate in this are generally able to hold jobs, which makes this approach particularly desirable. People think you’re either using drugs and incompetent, or not using drugs and functional, but, it turns out, nothing is that simple. In fact, Maine Behavioral Health estimates that there are 35,000 people struggling with substance use disorder and 26,000 of them are working. Some people are taking illegal drugs to avoid cravings and withdrawal symptoms. They are not enjoying any kind of high. Medication assisted treatment programs can be a particular help for people in this situation.

Third, we need to encourage businesses to hire more people in recovery. I think we should certify recovery friendly businesses and have recovery job fairs. The hospitality industry (hotels and restaurants) is typically the one that is most open to hiring those in recovery, who often have criminal records. More and more people in recovery are looking to re-enter the workforce, and we should make that simpler. Having a job creates a sense of purpose and a way for a person in recovery to contribute positively to society.

Fourth, we should clarify the laws so a person can’t be charged with possession if they are calling to save a life. This is known as the Good Samaritan law. We hear heart wrenching stories in the criminal justice committee from parents whose children were left to die after an overdose, because another user nearby was too worried about being arrested to call 911. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t crack down on heavy drug trafficking. In addition to addressing drug demand, we must also cut off the illicit drug supply. In York County, we are in a unique position. Much of what comes into the state comes from the south on our highways. Continued collaboration between all law enforcement agencies is key.

Fifth, if you have prescription medications, make sure that you store them safely and if they are expired, unused or unwanted, you can safely dispose of them at a Drug Takeback Day, like we hold at the Biddeford Recycling Center every Earth Day. You can also bring expired medications to drop boxes at either the Biddeford or Saco Police departments. These facilities are open 24/7. About 50 percent of people who initiated substance misuse (particularly opioids) said they obtained the drugs from a friend or family member, so get those unneeded medications out of the house.

Sixth, in a joint venture with Saco, Biddeford formed the People Recover Program – formerly called the Saco- Biddeford Opiate Outreach Initiative – which serves those who struggled with opioid addiction and their families in both communities. The initiative is one of four state-funded pilot programs in Maine. The state provided $98,000, and Biddeford-Saco contributed a total of about $20,000 for the two-year program. However, funding runs out in October 2018. It is obvious to me that we need to continue this program. A supportive interaction with the police can have an incredibly positive effect on someone struggling with substance use disorder and get them into treatment.

Seventh, we should reinvigorate and expand drug courts. This is not a physical courthouse, but rather a legal approach. For a first-time offender, who recognizes their substance use disorder is a problem, an arrest can literally be a lifesaver. In a drug court, a judge can connect a person misusing substances with treatment for a firsttime possession charge. This is an opportunity, in a way, to break the cycle.

Eighth, dial 211 for help. This is an initiative of the United Way of Maine. Often, in a moment of clarity a person struggling with substance use disorder will reach out. We need to move at that moment, because there can be no way to call back – the person may not have a phone, or have minutes on their phone, or may not even have a pen and paper to take down a number. Dialing 211 will connect a user to someone like Maegan Lambert-Irish, a counselor who works for the cities of Biddeford and Saco as part of the People Recover initiative. We need to continue to build out the network of referrals from 211.

Ninth, let’s add recovery community centers. A recovery community center is a safe place for individuals in or seeking to be in recovery from substance use disorders. It offers a space for recovery meetings and services, including the work of recovery coaches mentioned above. Centers are typically funded by a combination of state, local and nonprofit support and run by volunteers with experience in the recovery community. New Hampshire has 11 of these centers, but Maine only has three. Let’s do more.

Tenth, enhance the work we do with people in jail and prison. People “dry out” in jail, but that can be inhumane. If they need, treatment should offer it to them while they’re inside. Also, simply being incarcerated seldom gives people the correct tools to transition well back into society when they leave. Without a plan in place, many will revert back to old habits and often they’ll end up back in jail. The York County Commissioners and Sheriff Bill King are well aware of this issue and are working on innovative recovery and re-entry options. Ensuring that people stay in recovery and out of jail can also help taxpayers in the long run. It’s very expensive to keep people in jail, and your taxes are paying the bill when re-entry is not successful.

We need to work together to battle the opioid crisis on all fronts. Let’s make 2018 the year we turn the corner. Here are 10 good ideas that might help save the life of somebody you know.

Rep. Martin Grohman of Biddeford is an Independent State Representative serving his second term in the Maine Legislature and is a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Outside the legislature, he is chair of the Biddeford Solid Waste Commission. Marty hosts a podcast for Maine entrepreneurs called The Grow Maine Show. Find it on Apple Podcasts and Google Play, sign up for legislative updates at www.growmaine.com or facebook.com/repgrohman or call 283-1476.

Return to top