AUGUSTA — With projections showing more people died of drug overdoses in Maine in 2020 than ever before, leaders of a substance use task force told city councilors Thursday Augusta needs to become a recovery ready community.

Leaders of the recently-formed Ad-Hoc Substance Use Task Force Advisory Committee, who expect to finalize their goals next week, said opiate use has spiked in the city, state, country and the world, and the problem became worse as people struggled through the coronavirus pandemic and its restrictions which left many people isolated and vulnerable.

“We’re projected to lose over 500 people in Maine this year, the underlying reason for that large spike is, we believe, COVID-19 and the social isolation we’ve all had to endure together,” said At-Large Councilor Courtney Allen, who is policy director of the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project. She said, later, “It’s every age group; every socioeconomic class; it’s you and I, our brothers and sisters, cousins and children, from every walk of life.”

The task force’s proposed goals are to:

• Educate community leaders and the community

• Collaborate to create a community inventory of services

• Support prevention efforts

• support harm reduction efforts

• work to create instant access to recovery housing and improve access to safe, appropriate housing

• Try to alleviate some of the strain of the problem placed on General Assistance which is a partially state-funded program providing service to residents in need.

At-Large Councilor Raegan LaRochelle said the task force, in its first two meetings, brought together experts from almost every sector in substance use treatment and asked what the city can do to support the creation of a recovery ready community in Augusta.

A recovery-ready community, group members said, is one built on eight pillars of prevention, treatment, harm reduction, judicial and law enforcement, housing, education, employment, and recovery support services. LaRochelle said it means a community able to have the resources available when people need help, and “meeting people where they are.”

“We feel we need to lead,” she said. “We can lead by collaborating with each of the experts and be the catalyst for getting the community ready to move to being a recovery ready community.”

Allen said the community’s role should include helping to provide access to treatment and recovery residences.

Maine is currently on pace to set a record for the most drug overdose deaths in 2020. The Maine Attorney General’s Office recently released data showing there were 380 drug-related deaths in the first nine months of last year. Officials said Maine is almost certain to set a new record for drug-related deaths in 2020. The previous high of 417 was set in 2017

Based on data from January to June of 2020, Kennebec County is projected to have 48 drug-related deaths in 2020.

Councilors are expected to discuss what the city’s role may be in helping people recover at their upcoming goal-setting session Jan. 30.

The city’s recently-formed Ad Hoc Substance Use Task Force Advisory Committee’s members include city councilors Allen and LaRochelle, city staff including Police Chief Jared Mills, substance abuse counselors, treatment experts, members of the recovery community, and representatives of recovery houses and health organizations.

Allen said opiate use spiked in 2000 when opiates were over-marketed, then around 2013 as that supply of opiates was cut off to some extent more people turned to heroin to feed their addiction. She said since then fentanyl came in, which is much cheaper and much deadlier, and now an even more deadly drug, para-fluorofentanyl, is on its way into Maine.

Police Chief Jared Mills said that new, highly dangerous drug is believed to be in Maine already.

Mayor David Rollins said it has been frustrating that the opiate problem hasn’t gotten adequate state or federal funding in the past and more funding is needed to address the problem.

But Allen said Gov. Janet Mills has allocated $7.5 million for the problem and, at the federal level, negotiations are ongoing on how funds will be distributed from litigation filed against pharmaceutical companies.

And LaRochelle said while some goals will need funding some of them are attainable without significant funding, such as working to destigmatize people in recovery to help them feel more connected to their community.

Doug Dunbar, of Eastern Maine Development Corporation, said that agency has $6.2 million in federal funding available to help unemployed and dislocated workers improve their lives including funding for substance addiction treatment.

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