PORTLAND — Its name is new, its mission unchanged and its outlook displays fresh optimism.
The subcommittee on substance use disorder met Feb. 18 in City Hall, the first time it has convened during Mayor Ethan Strimling’s administration and almost two years since the subcommittee on substance abuse was first formed by former Mayor Michael Brennan.
“This is one of the most important (committees Brennan) had on the table,” Strimling said. “But the one request I have is, what is the goal of the group for the next year? How will we measure the effectiveness of what we have done?”
The name change was unanimously accepted after emotional comments from Andrew Kiezulas, a University of Southern Maine student who is also a member of the Maine chapter of Youth in Recovery group.
“The connotations I had with the word abuser ran very deeply. I fought the idea of abuser because I knew what it was,” said Kiezulas, as he detailed a childhood where he and family members endured physical abuse.
Statistically, 2015was difficult in Portland and Maine, especially regarding opioid use. There were 174 overdose deaths in Maine through September, setting a pace that would surpass the 208 overdose deaths recorded in 2014.
In Portland, overdose calls continued to increase, most notably on the first weekend of July 2015, when city police responded to 14 in 24 hours.
Bridget Rauscher, substance abuse prevention program coordinator for the city Department of Health and Human Services, also noted the opioid blocker naloxone, known by its Narcan tradename, was administered 161 times by city EMTs to people who had overdosed in 2015.
Narcan was administered 107 times in 2014, 74 times in 2013 and 56 times in 2012. Rauscher said the 2015 increase occurred even as the wider public availability of Narcan also meant responders arrived after someone else had administered it to an overdose victim.
Beyond the data was a feeling that the city and state were beginning to confront opioid use through public health and law enforcement approaches and changing perceptions about the scope of the problem.
“We are demystifying who we are, that we are not criminals and deviants. We are people who have positive messages to share,” said Steve Cotreau, who directs the Portland Community Recovery Center at 468 Forest Ave.
Passage in January of $3.7 million in emergency spending by the state Legislature will provide $2.5 million in treatment and education, while adding 10 more Maine Drug Enforcement Agency agents.
The Substance Use Disorder Committee chairman, state Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, urged committee members to continue to press his Augusta colleagues.
“You have got to take and get the message through this is not a hopeless situation,” he said.
Locally, the new police Law Enforcement Addiction Advocacy Program, known as LEAAP, has provided assistance to three people seeking recovery resources, said liaison Oliver Bradeen. Bradeen began leading the program Feb. 1.
Police Chief Michael Sauschuck, who established the program with funds taken in drug seizures, said Bradeen’s prior work with police to assist people in need of mental health care has made it easier for police to refer opioid users to him.
“Oliver has the support and trust internally already,” Sauschuck said.
Sauschuck said LEAAP, funded with money seized in drug prosecutions, has also received a contribution from the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Committee members will keep looking to Augusta while working on local initiatives, they said. Pending bills include LD 1488, introduced by Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, which would fund local diversion programs with $2 million. Dion is also the former Cumberland County sheriff.
A bill to provide $75,000 for funding to local needle exchange programs, sponsored by state Rep. Karen Vachon, R-Scarborough, was tabled by the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee Feb. 17.
Andrew Kiezulas successfully lobbied to change the name of Portland’s subcommittee on substance abuse to the substance use disorder subcommittee when it met Feb. 18.