AUGUSTA — A police-run referral program that aims to steer people addicted to drugs toward treatment may be coming to the city if funding sources can be identified.

Augusta city officials are looking north to Waterville for a blueprint, as they try to reduce the rising number of drug overdose deaths by helping local residents get into treatment. The effort comes as Maine recorded its worst year for drug overdoses in 2020, with 502 deaths, while early numbers suggest overdoses are still rising.

Courtney Allen, an at-large councilor and leader of the city’s Ad-Hoc Substance Use Task Force Advisory Committee, said the Waterville program’s success has been personal for her.

Waterville police Deputy Chief Bill Bonney, left, and Chief Joseph Massey announce the start of Operation HOPE — Heroin Opiate Prevention Effort — at a news conference in 2016. Augusta is considering implementing the program as well. Morning Sentinel file photo

“I happen to know someone who took part in your program, and I do know where he ended up,” Allen said to Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey during a council discussion Thursday night. “He ended up as a full-time employee, as a dad, as my friend, and he just had a new baby, he has three little girls. He stayed in Virginia at the McShin Foundation for over a year and he got on his feet and came home when COVID hit, to take care of his girls. And he’s a person in recovery and a member of our community ever since. So I appreciate your work.”

Massey met with city councilors in Augusta to describe Operation HOPE (Heroin Opiate Prevention Effort), which he spearheaded the launch of in 2017. The program has helped put more than 200 Mainers into substance use disorder treatment programs.

“We know this opioid problem is an epidemic, a crisis across the country,” Massey said. “But the way for me to help this issue, as the state level, at the national level, is to have a successful local program that can be emulated throughout the state, the country. A national effort would be great, if … the funding is there. But until that happens we need to do something local. We need to take our police hats off and get into treatment. We need to think outside the box, and we really need to get involved in the treatment process; that is the long-term solution. If we arrest someone, put them in jail, there is a good chance when they come out they’re still going to be addicted, and they’re going to go right back to it.”

Augusta Mayor David Rollins said Maine’s capital city is “very interested” in trying to emulate what Waterville has done with Operation HOPE.

“The aid we get federally and the aid we get statewide, and the stuff they put out for us, in terms of availability (of substance-use help), isn’t cutting it. … To take the initiative, like you have, I applaud that,” Rollins told Massey. “I think we’re very interested in trying to copy that. You’re not solving the problem, you’re addressing it. It’s a deep, dark, complicated thing, but I was moved by what you said.”

Massey said the program has been very successful and changed many lives for the better, although he noted the program and others like it have a high failure rate and a number of participants relapse or leave treatment. Massey said if the program helps just one person recover from drug addiction and return to being a good mother, father, co-worker or community member, he considers it to be a success.

But there are indicators the program has helped many more than one person.

Allen, the at-large city councilor, said she spoke with the owner and founder of a substance-use treatment center in Virginia, the McShin Foundation. The foundation has had 49 people who’ve come there via Waterville’s Operation HOPE since 2017. Allen said out of those 49 participants, 42, or 86%, stayed through the 28-day program there. She said the average age of participants was 33, and the average stay has been 81 days. She said 50% of them have gained employment since they first went to the treatment center.

The Waterville program, and another in Scarborough, are modeled after a program founded in New Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Waterville’s program is funded by private donations, fundraisers including concerts and a golf tournament, and grants. Other than Massey’s involvement and the time of another Waterville officer who oversees the program, there is no property tax dollars involved.

The program provides an intake worker, available at the Waterville Police Department 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Massey said that’s key, as someone suffering from substance use disorder may need help when they seek it, and may not come back the next day, or could even overdose.

The Waterville chief said securing funding for the program is an ongoing difficulty, costing around $50,000 a year.

Massey said he hopes Augusta and other communities will adopt similar programs to help people with substance-abuse problems find help.

Augusta City Manager William Bridgeo said he could look into the city potentially applying for federal funds to help pay for the cost of helping residents with substance use disorder, which could become available for specific, earmarked projects. Though the city would have to apply by April 19 and would have to partner with an existing federal department or agency, he said.

The Office of the Attorney General and Office of the Chief Medical Examiner released drug overdose data Monday, showing there were 45 deaths caused by drugs in February of 2021, up from 40 confirmed overdose deaths in February of 2020, with the most frequent cause of death in those cases being fentanyl.

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