Portland needle exchange demand exceeds funding

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PORTLAND — Progress on a program to divert nonviolent drug offenders to treatment and housing instead of jail has slowed, but state funding is a possibility, Mayor Michael Brennan said May 21.

Brennan was speaking at a meeting with his subcommittee on substance abuse, where Caroline Teschke, the clinical services program manager of the Portland Community Free Clinic, said the city needle exchange program is facing increased demand while scouring for more funding.

The diversion program, patterned after the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program created in King County, Washington, has been under discussion after the details were presented to the committee in January.

Acting City Manager Michael Sauschuck said subcommittee member Chris Poulos, who led the study of how to fit the program into the city, has taken a job in Washington, D.C.

Sauschuck said there is more to be done to bring city and Cumberland County agencies together for the program.

“The timing of the grants that are out there are not going to work for us,” he said. “We still need all the partners at the table.”

Brennan said his preliminary discussions with state officials indicate there may be some support for developing the program, which he envisions for East Bayside, and he expects to seek some sort of state funding to get it going.

Known by its LEAD acronym, the King County program was created in two Seattle neighborhoods by law enforcement, criminal justice and social service agencies.

Kris Nyrop, who works with the King County public defender’s office, said in January the LEAD program is designed more for crime prevention than substance abuse prevention, and has helped about 250 chronic offenders who were facing jail time at an estimated annual cost of $30,000.

Teschke’s news about the needle exchange, which is operated at the India Street Public Health Center, was grim. She said it was down to its last $10 before getting a $1,000 donation earlier this month.

“It literally runs on sort of a bake-sale foundation,” Teschke said, because the needle exchange is not allowed to receive state or federal funding.

From January through this month, Teschke said the exchange collected about 42,300 needles and gave out more than 40,000, while enrolling 99 new members. In 2014, 179,000 needles were exchanged with 801 people enrolled.

“We have the soccer moms, we have the small business owners,” Teschke said of the members.

What the exchange does not have is the ability to provide a new needle for each one collected, Teschke said. There is now a cap of 50 that can be distributed.

While enrollment expands, Teschke said the needle exchanges are also a chance to monitor what is happening on the street.

“Each exchange is seen as an opportunity for education, testing, immunization, safe injection techniques and recovery,” she said.

Teschke estimated the syringes cost about 10 cents each, but reliance on grants and community support is challenging.

“We need an angel,” Teschke said. “All I need is between $12,000 and $15,000 to buy all the needles I need.”

Exchange members come from throughout southern Maine she said, with as many as 20 percent of them living off the city’s peninsula.

Beyond full funding, Teschke said she hopes for more mobility.

“My dream is a little white van that goes around,” she said.

Brennan said his conversations with other Maine mayors indicate addiction problems are widespread and perhaps not getting enough attention in the Legislature.

“We just have an epidemic in this state,” he said. “We need to everything we can in the city to address overdose and substance abuse issues.”

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.