Liaison added to Portland fight against opioid abuse

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PORTLAND — It began almost 20 months ago with stark statistics about substance abuse and city crime.

On Dec. 2, Police Chief Michael Sauschuck announced a new way to combat those problems.

“We have to change the way we do business,” Sauschuck said as he announced the new Law Enforcement Addiction Advocacy Program.

The program will add a liaison to work with police, “known drug users,” overdose victims and their families to provide possible treatment options. The new position will be funded with drug forfeiture money, Sauschuck said.

At the first meeting of former Mayor Michael Brennan’s subcommittee on substance abuse, Sauschuck estimated 75 percent of all crime in the city could be linked to substance abuse, as well as 30 percent of emergency medical calls.

That data was known before the number of overdose calls to police began increasing, as well as the number of times naxolone hydrochloride (known by the trade name Narcan), was administered by city emergency responders.

Since 2013, overdose calls have increased, from 273 to 334 in 2014, to 400 in 2015, with one month left in the year. Narcan administrations, which block the opioid effects, have increased from 56 in 2012 to 155 so far this year, Sauschuck said.

One weekend in early July, police responded to 14 overdose calls in 24 hours, according to City Manager Jon Jennings said. Five of the overdoses resulted in cardiac arrests and two were fatal,  he added. 

With $150,000 in funding available, Sauschuck said he is working on the job description for the liaison, and hopes to fill the position in January 2016.

“We are not looking at this position as the silver bullet,” Sauschuck said. “We are committed to the work.”

The liaison post is being patterned after one created by police to help people in need of mental health care. The program will also draw on elements of programs in Seattle and Gloucester, Massachusetts.

“I’m proud that our program adopts a hybrid approach that builds upon our existing mental health resources within the police department,” Brennan said.

The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, commonly called LEAD and established in Seattle in 2011, had drawn subcommittee interest for almost a year. LEAD allows police officers and other legal and social service agency staff to refer nonviolent offenders facing drug or prostitution charges to treatment and housing programs instead of the courts and jail.

“The incarceration of drug traffickers will continue to be a top priority of law enforcement,” Sauschuck said.

The city could also get state funding for diversion programs, as state Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, is introducing five related bills in the upcoming session of the Legislature.

“The goal is to secure funding for case management,” said Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff. “I think there is a sense we are in a crisis state.”

The full extent of the crisis in the city is not fully known, Sauschuck conceded. 

“Not all overdose calls are created equal,” Sauschuck said, adding victims might already have been administered Narcan by the time responders arrive.

Sauschuck said he expects those in the recovery community to contribute to LEAAD.

“I have been pleasantly surprised by the strength of the recovery community,” he said.

Andrew Kiezulas and Christopher Poulos, a part of Brennan’s subcommittee from the start, welcomed the shift in perspective from criminal justice to public health the LEAAD program could bring.

“It has been a very long road and it is wonderful to see something moving forward,” Poulos said.

Poulos has served time on a low-level drug conviction and took part this summer in White House conferences in Washington, D.C., where diversion programs were a focus.

“It is very gratifying to see everyone’s hard work come to the beginning of a program that could make a tangible change in the community,” said Kiezulas, who used heroin and now leads Portland Youth in Recovery.

Brennan said LEAAD was as rewarding an initiative as any he had seen or led while in office.

“This saves people’s lives,” he said. “There will be one, if not more, people who will not die.” 

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Police Chief Michael Sauschuck announces that a liaison will be hired by the city to help overdose victims get treatment. “We have to change the way we do business,” he said Dec. 2 at City Hall.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.