PORTLAND — Portland first responders received a surge of heroin overdose calls over the weekend, prompting city officials to draw attention to existing treatment resources and continue a call for a new program to divert people arrested straight to a treatment program.
During a media event Wednesday afternoon, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said the city hopes to secure $100,000 to $200,000 to support a diversion program based on one started in Seattle.
“It focuses on a social service intervention as opposed to criminal justice intervention and it’s been very successful in Seattle,” said Brennan, who is a licensed clinical social worker.
The city’s police chief, Michael Sauschuck, and fire chief Joseph LaMoria also expressed support for such a program Wednesday, saying the city needs methods beyond emergency treatments like the drug Narcan that can revive someone who overdosed on opioids.
“Narcan’s not our issue,” LaMoria said. “Our issue is that we have a substance abuse problem. People are dying and we can’t stop them from doing it again, and we need more options.”
The city’s police and emergency medical staff responded to 14 overdoses — including two fatal cases — in a 24-hour period during the past week, according to a release the city issued Wednesday.
Sauschuck said city and state governments need to focus on education and prevention, treatment and rehabilitation, as well as enforcement to battle substance abuse that lately has centered on heroin and heroin mixed with Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiate analgesic similar to but more potent than morphine.
Public health officials have credited that mixture to a rise last year in opioid-related deaths, which made up seven out of 10 overdose deaths in the state.
Maine Drug Enforcement Agency arrests related to heroin quadrupled from 2010 to 2014. Overdose deaths involving heroin or morphine have increased by 800 percent since 2010, according to state figures.
Scott Pelletier, commander of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency’s southern operations, said that Fentanyl, a lab-produced drug, has increasingly made its way into heroin sold in New England. And distributors themselves sometimes don’t know whether they’re selling pure heroin.
The Fentanyl is cheaper to produce, Pelletier said, which has driven its increasing use as a supplement to heroin distributed in New England, where he said heroin can sell for higher prices than in other parts of the country.
Part of the problem, he said, is that people addicted to heroin often start with addictions to legally prescribed drugs that then give them withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking the drug, for lack of access or other reasons.
“For them, it’s about trying not to be sick,” Pelletier said. “And that outweighs being clean.”
Brennan said that the Maine Mayors Coalition plans to discuss a proposal to implement targeted pilot programs based on Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program.
“This is not just a Portland issue, it is regional and statewide,” Brennan said.
The city has also sought to combat an increase in the number of used needles discarded in public parks by upping police patrols and putting more focus on specific areas, including Deering Oaks Park and Peppermint Park.
City Manager Jon Jennings said Portland has created a new series of public service announcements about the issue and directed anyone who finds needles in a public park or space not to attempt to handle the needles and instead to call the city’s public dispatch service at 874-8493.
Jennings also directed people to the website overdosepreventionproject.org for more information on preventing abuse of heroin and other drugs.