Scarborough police say addict referral program is working

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SCARBOROUGH — Nearing the end of its first month, the addict rehabilitation initiative Operation Hope has helped place 26 people in drug treatment programs across the country.

Initiated and led by members of the Scarborough Police Department to combat the heroin and opiate epidemic, Operation Hope offers users an avenue away from addiction that doesn’t necessarily include jail time.

From 2011 to 2014, the percentage of heroin-related deaths increased by 714 percent across the state, Officer John Gill said Tuesday morning. Gill, along with Crime Analyst Jaime Higgins and Chief Robbie Moulton are spearheading the program.

On a daily basis, 80-85 percent of the crimes that the Police Department deals with, Gill said, “are driven by opiate addiction.”

The department launched the program Oct. 1  in collaboration with the Gloucester, Massachusetts-based Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, and the Portland Recovery Community Center.

The program includes several components and required officer training in how to approach drug arrests differently. Now, when drug arrests are made, officers provide information directing the individual to treatment.

The department has also opened its doors for users and addicts to walk in, turn in their drug materials without threat of penalty or arrest, and meet with a designated person about treatment options.

Nearly 40 users from 18 years old to the mid-40s have utilized the walk-in service so far this month, Gill said. The department has also had two juvenile addicts walk in, but the program doesn’t currently have the capability to offer them assistance and, instead, refers them to Day One in Portland.

People have stopped in from all over the state, as far south as Lebanon and as far north as Houlton, which Gill said is “indicative of (the) lack of access to treatment programs.”

Of the 26 who have been placed in treatment programs, 13 are men and 13 women, Jaime Higgins, crime analyst for the department, said Tuesday.

The responsibility to help the growing number of heroin users in the state beyond simply arresting them and getting them off the street fell to the department, Gill believes, because the state is too slow to handle the problem.

“They’re not willing to do something, which we ended up forcing ourselves to to do and jump off the cliff,” he said.

No taxpayer dollars are being spent on the program and most of the 26 placements so far have been made for free. Only eight individuals in treatment have had health insurance, Gill said. The remaining 18 have been had their fee waived by the individual treatment providers, who are usually not only willing to provide free treatment, but free transportation.

The typical cost of a 30-day treatment program is about $18,200, Higgins said, which means that nearly $200,000 worth of treatment is being offered to individuals who seek treatment through the project.

“It’s really because there are nice people out there that want to help us,” Gill said.

In addition to placing individuals in Portland-based treatment programs at Liberty Bay Recovery Center, Crossroads and Skip Murhphy’s, Operation Hope has placed people in programs across the country, some elsewhere in Maine, others in Florida, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Colorado and California.

Yet because there is no fixed funding in place, Higgins said, there is a “constant fear” that the generosity will expire and that users who need help, because of a lack of insurance, won’t get the help they need.

This reminds Gill that Operation Hope is not a permanent solution to the statewide problem.

“Yes, it’s a temporary fix,” he said, “but we’re going to try to save as many lives as possible until this permanent system is in place.”

“People can talk all day long, but people continue to die,” Gill continued. “If it was any other illness or disease that was killing people at the rate it’s occurring in the state of Maine, then there would be people clamoring for action.

 “When we run out of scholarship placements, if Maine and its elected officials haven’t done what they need to do to take care of this public health crisis, at that point we can still say that we helped 26 people.”

Nearly as important as the treatment itself is deconstruction of the stigma surrounding the disease, Gill said: letting the public “know what the face of recovery looks like,” and that not all addicts are homeless.

Some are, but some are also individuals or people with families and a full-time job. The one common denominator, Gill said, is that “they’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, and this is their last-ditch effort.”

Operation Hope walk-in hours at the Police Department are 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, at 246 U.S. Route 1. More information is available on the Scarborough Police Department Facebook page.

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.