Portland councilors to look into safe house for drug users

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PORTLAND — A city councilor Tuesday said discussions will be held on whether the city should establish a safe house for drug addicts.

Councilor Belinda Ray’s statement came after an advocate of abstinence in the addiction recovery community said the city needs a supervised place where addicts can safely use drugs.

“It is not an endorsement of drug use, it is an acknowledgement that if drugs are going to be used, it should be done safely,” the advocate, Jesse Harvey, said Feb. 16.

Harvey said he will ask the city’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. 26, in City Hall Room 24.

“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.”

On Tuesday, Councilor Belinda Ray said the conversation will begin this year.

“We recognize with opioid crisis going on, we need to look at any and all possible solutions to mitigate the impact,” Ray said.

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

Harvey operates two sober houses in York County, and believes in abstinence-oriented recovery while welcoming people embracing all manners of recovery.

Yet with opioid overdoses continuing to increase in the city and state, Harvey said he wants to start the conversation about safe sites where people can use in a supervised environment.

“What I have come to see in the last 30 months … is we need a comprehensive approach to substance use disorders,” Harvey said.

A critical component in the approach is harm reduction, he said, and he believes the city is ready to consider a safe site.

“I’m surprised the conversation is not more advanced in Portland, (since) it is such a progressive place,” he said.

He acknowledged that designating a spot for safe drug consumption, where clean needles, naloxone and medical staff are available may not be something the 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, with deaths increasing annually from 156 in 2011 to 376 in 2016. The state has not yet released data from all of 2017, but through June 30 2017, 185 deaths were linked to overdoses, according to Attorney General Janet Mills. Of those deaths, 84 percent were linked to opioid use.

Of the 2016 deaths, 42 were recorded in Cumberland County. The city has been fighting opioid use and overdoses with dedicated prevention unit since 2002. The overdose prevention efforts include training sessions on how to properly use naloxone, better known by its Narcan tradename, to reverse an overdose and revive a victim.

Staff always recommend calling 911 first, but Narcan is also available at the city needle exchange at 103 India St. The needle exchange does not receive city, state or federal funding.

In September, 2017, city councilors approved joining a potential class-action suit “against manufacturers and distributors of opioids arising out of the manufacturers’ and distributors’ fraudulent and negligent marketing and distribution of opioids.”

There are no safe drug consumption sites in the U.S., where they would violate federal law. Such place began in Switzerland, and are operated in Canada and Australia.

The concept, however, is gaining traction in the U.S.; Philadelphia, San Francisco and King County, Washington (which includes Seattle) have either approved establishing sites or are discussing their creation.

A paper at the King County website, “Safe Consumption Facilities: Evidence and Models,” concluded the sites do not lead to increased drug use and have reduced the number of overdose deaths and some public health costs.

Harvey said he hopes a fair discussion will ensue which focuses on the need for harm reduction. He also believes a safe injection site will lead more people to recovery because it removes the isolation that can occur as people use opioids.

“Who can they turn to alone in an alley?” he asked.

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

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.