Portland officials will hold discussions on whether to establish Maine’s first safe-injection site for drug users.

The idea arose when the operator of two recovery houses suggested to city officials that Portland needs a medically supervised place where addicts can safely use drugs. The proposal comes as Mainers are dying from overdoses at a rate of more than one a day.

“It is not an endorsement of drug use,” said Jesse Harvey, who operates two recovery houses in York County. “It is an acknowledgement that if drugs are going to be used, it should be done safely.”

Facilities where drug users can inject drugs such as heroin under the supervision of medical professionals are more common in Europe and Canada. Last month Philadelphia became the first U.S. city to approve the concept, although it has yet to identify funding or a location. Several other large U.S. cities have discussed the idea, and Portland appears to be the first in Maine to formally consider it.

Maine’s Legislature considered a proposal to set up a state-sanctioned safe injection site but rejected the legislation in May.

Opponents of the state proposal argued that safe-injection sites violate federal drug laws because the use of opioids is criminal activity. Operation of a safe injection site could jeopardize federal funding for any participating health care providers and could place at risk the federal licenses of any medical professionals who participate, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and medical licensing bodies. If a drug user died in such a facility, the operator and staff also could bear legal responsibility, they said.

Critics of such safe houses in other states have argued that they would undermine prevention and treatment efforts, while supporters say they can help keep drug users alive and connect them to services that might help them get them into recovery.

Harvey said he will ask Portland’s Overdose Prevention Task Force to recommend creating a comprehensive user engagement site, or safe house, within two years. The task force meets at 2 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27, in City Hall Room 24. No specific sites have been identified.

“Maybe a symbolic thing first, just to start a conversation,” he said. “There is no reason why in the next 24 months we shouldn’t have one.”

The council’s Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee, which is led by Ray, has put safe sites on its plan for discussion and asked City Manager Jon Jennings to have city staff “explore the benefits and challenges.”

City Councilor Brian Batson, a nurse, said he brought the idea to the committee because he believes it’s time for Portland to have a conversation about it.

Batson said such facilities may reduce the risk of life-threatening infections as well as fatal overdoses, although he also said he is not ready to endorse the idea for Portland.

“All I want is to have a conversation, bring the community in and discuss what our city needs,” he said. “We have a public health crisis, an epidemic that kills more than gun violence in the U.S. We have to shift the paradigm and have creative conversations to leave no stone unturned.”

Mayor Ethan Strimling said he is pleased the committee is planning to discuss the issue, although he is eager to learn more about the details and potential obstacles to such a facility.

“It’s absolutely something I’m open to. I want us to explore this very deeply,” Strimling said. “I want to create as many opportunities as possible for people with substance abuse disorders to get professional help and this could be another way to do that.”

With opioid overdoses continuing to increase, Harvey said, he wants to start the conversation about safe sites as part of an overall approach to the growing drug problem.

“What I have come to see in the last 30 months … is we need a comprehensive approach to substance use disorders,” Harvey said. “I’m surprised the conversation is not more advanced in Portland, (since) it is such a progressive place.”

He acknowledged that designating a spot for safe drug consumption, where medical staff can provide clean needles and the overdose antidote drug naloxone, may not be something city government is prepared to do. “I’m just concerned with getting the conversation started, not as much a focused on who runs it and how right now,” Harvey said.

Drug-induced deaths in Maine have been rising for more than half a decade, from 156 in 2011 to 376 in 2016. The state has not yet released data from all of 2017, but through June 30 of last year, 185 deaths were linked to overdoses, according to Attorney General Janet Mills. Of those deaths, 84 percent were linked to heroin and other opioids.

Press Herald Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this article.

David Harry can be contacted at 781-3661 ext. 110 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Read this story in The Forecaster.

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