PORTLAND, Maine — Over the course of 24 hours last weekend, 14 people here overdosed on opiates. Two died. It has prompted the city to launch an outreach campaign to try to reduce overdoses.
But as officials outlined plans to address the problem at a press conference Wednesday, they also lamented the lack of available treatment options in the state.
Last weekend represents a serious spike in overdose numbers, according to City Manager Jon Jennings, prompting immediate action: increasing police patrols in public parks where discarded needles have been found, promoting the Portland Needle Exchange, distributing more public health PSAs and creating an online resource, the recently launched website overdosepreventionproject.org.
Increased awareness is one area over which Portland officials believe they have some control. Last year, 2014, was the deadliest on record for drug overdoses, according to the Maine attorney general's office. Two-hundred and eight people died, a nearly 20 percent increase from the previous year.
That sharp rise is attributed to increased use of heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opiate similar to morphine but more powerful.
"Many addicts are purchasing what they believe is heroin, and ultimately finding it to be fentanyl, which in and of itself is a very, very deadly component," says Portland Police Chief Mike Sauschuck. "Whether you're cutting, or that's the majority of that particular batch, or dosage — that's a particularly deadly combination."
Mayor Michael Brennan says a city task force is also looking into more long-term solutions and is considering replicating a Seattle-based program called LEAD. Brennan says the program focuses on social service interventions versus criminal interventions.
So when a police officer encounters someone engaged in substance abuse or a crime, "instead of arresting them," he says, "they can divert them to the LEAD program, which will then provide treatment services, housing, employment opportunities and other support services for that person."
But treatment remains an issue, Sauschuck says.
"Are there beds, are there treatment opportunities, are there options?" he says. "And I will tell you there are not enough. In the city of Portland, in the nation, you name it — there are not enough rehabilitation or treatment opportunities out there."
Brent Miller, program director for the Discovery House in Bangor, says waiting lists for treatment are growing as other providers close or discontinue services. Methadone treatment wait times have doubled to between three and four weeks. Suboxone treatment wait times are even longer.
"We are getting calls from all over," he says. "And unfortunately, we're limited to about three intakes a week. And we have a list — we're revamping and looking at it, but I think we're going to look at 100 people trying to get into our program."
Brennan says access to treatment has also been affected by Maine's decision not to expand Medicaid as allowed under the Affordable Care Act.
"Obviously it's very difficult to access services just in general, but when you don't have insurance or some sort of financial resource to seek out treatment, it becomes an even larger barrier," he says.
Upon hearing about the 14 overdoses in Portland, Gov. Paul LePage announced Wednesday afternoon he will convene local, state and federal experts in August to discuss ways to effectively fight heroin addiction and trafficking in Maine.
LePage also sent a letter to legislative leadership Wednesday, asking them to reconsider allocating funding in the state budget to boost the number of Maine's law enforcement agents, district attorneys and judges to help combat the state's drug problem.