AUGUSTA — City officials propose to seek grant funding to create a partnership with drug treatment providers and five other area law enforcement agencies to create a diversion program to get drug addicts caught in possession of drugs into treatment instead of into the criminal justice system.

Participants in the program, who would be low-level, first-time drug offenders, could avoid having the drug charge against them placed on their record if they go through drug treatment successfully.

Deputy Chief Jared Mills, of the Augusta police, said treatment is the lone, but key, missing piece that has not been addressed yet as local officials look to get rid of heroin and other addictive drugs.

“This is a situation where the state doesn’t have an answer to this issue right now,” Mills told city councilors, who expressed informal support for the proposal Thursday. “Councilor (Jeffrey) Bilodeau asked, a couple of years ago, how do we get rid of heroin in the city? This is the only piece left the council hasn’t addressed. We’ve done education with (plans to add) the DARE officer, we’ve added extra detectives (for drug enforcement); now this is the treatment portion we can finally be a part of. And we’re going to give it our best shot and see if this is something that could work.”

Drug overdose deaths in the state reached a new high of 272 in 2015, an increase of 31 percent over the previous year, according to data from the state attorney general’s office. And statistics released by the state in August this year showed there already had been 189 drug overdose deaths in the state through June 30, a 50 percent increase over the same period in 2015.

Locally, community members and treatment providers have been holding meetings to come up with solutions to the epidemic. In Augusta alone, the Fire Department dealt with 50 heroin overdoses in 2015, up from 26 in 2014 and just six in 2007, according to Fire Chief Roger Audette.

Mills said people likely to be in the treatment program would include first-time offenders who overdose on drugs, and are caught possessing illegal drugs, but who aren’t believed to be major dealers. Such people would be charged with drug possession, but their criminal case would be on hold while they participate in the program and get treatment for drug addiction. If their treatment is successful, those charges never would go on their record. Mills noted it could not just benefit the participant, who would get off drugs, but also ease the burden on jails and the courts because those low-level offenders would be diverted from the criminal justice system if they are successful in drug treatment.

“The diversion piece, we find it really important to have that criminal charge in place to ensure there is a success rate so folks follow through in treatment,” Mills said. “If they leave, that charge comes back. It’s kind of held over their head, and then it never actually gets processed through the District Attorney’s Office (if they complete treatment).”

Other law enforcement agencies that could partner with Augusta police in the program are the Winthrop, Monmouth, Gardiner and Hallowell police departments and the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office. Mills said outgoing Sheriff Ryan Reardon was on board with the program but, since he was not elected back into office, officials now will discuss the proposal with Sheriff-elect Ken Mason. Mills said authorities from Winthrop, Monmouth and Hallowell already have signed a cooperative agreement, and he is hopeful Gardiner officials will do so next week.

Police with the participating agencies would all have the opportunity to place low level drug offenders into the diversion program.

The partnership also would involve the District Attorney’s Office and service providers including Crisis and Counseling, Kennebec Behavioral Health, MaineGeneral Meidcal Center, and Dr. Douglas Jorgensen, of the Maine Recovery Center in Manchester, a practice that can prescribe medications including Suboxone, which can help reduce addicts’ cravings for opioids and other drugs.

At-large City Councilor Marci Alexander, who is an attorney for MaineGeneral, said the hospital would be a sub-grantee in the program, and offers both residential and outpatient substance abuse treatment, including by doctors who can write prescriptions for Suboxone, if needed, to help get addicts off illegal drugs.

“With Suboxone, there is also counseling and treatment that needs to go with it. It’s not just a matter of dispensing the drug,” she said.

Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti expressed concerns about the lack of available treatment.

“There are not a lot of resources out there, and unless you’re suicidal, there is a long break in time between when the person asks for help, and the time the person is able to get in and get help,” she said. “So the current system we have is simply not, in my view, adequate right now.”

Even when treatment slots are available, people without health insurance might not be able to participate because they can’t afford to pay for treatment.

Mills said part of the $125,000 grant the city may seek from the Grants for Substance Abuse Assistance Projects program would help pay for treatment for people without insurance.

Funding, he said, was a key missing element in the city’s existing Capital Recovery Program, also referred to as the “angels” program. That program began last year and sought to match drug addicts with “angels” who would be trained to mentor addicts as they sought to recover.

Participants in that program were not facing criminal charges. They were simply addicts would came looking for help voluntarily.

Mills acknowledged the Capital Recovery Program has not had a good success rate. He said a few addicts did go through the program, but police were unable to track whether they were successful because there was no funding to hire a case manager to track people and handle other aspects of the program.

He said the proposed new program could expand on those efforts, provide more treatment options through its partnerships with treatment providers, and provide money to hire a case manager.

“Where we kind of failed with the existing program we have, was because of a lack of funding,” Mills said. “We’ve got a lot more folks involved, so we’re a lot better equipped at this point.”

Mills said the grant application is due Nov. 22. He said no local match is required but the grant is for 18 months, and after it runs out, it would be up to the local organizations involved to fund it beyond then.

Mills said if it is successful after 18 months, officials would look to keep it running by seeking money from each of the law enforcement agencies involved. Augusta’s estimated share of that cost would be about $24,000 a year, according to City Manager William Bridgeo. He said he would work hard to find money to include in his budget for fiscal year 2018-2019 for the city’s share of the cost of the program, if it proves to be successful.

Mills said the program is based on LEAD, or Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program, which he said has been successful in Seattle.

City councilors expressed support for the program Thursday and are expected to vote at their next meeting on whether to authorize administrators to apply for it.

“Thank you for your work towards our goal here in Augusta to try to stifle this pandemic of heroin, Oxycontin or oxycodone, whatever you want to call it — the opiates-type drugs use that’s going on in our community,” Bilodeau said. “It touches every walk of life, it doesn’t discriminate on economics or race. It’s just whether you are exposed to it or not and whether your brain chemicals addict you to that particular scenario. It is not a good thing for any family member that is going through it. So anything we can do to help as a community is the ideal way to go.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj