AUGUSTA — A seemingly radical idea to create a couple of places where drug-addicted Mainers could go to shoot up in safety drew passionate debate from lawmakers who ultimately turned down the idea.

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, said the notion of creating a safe, secure place for addicts to take prohibited drugs legally might seem “out there,” but “people are dying on the streets” in Maine at a rate of more than one a day. Something, he said, has to be done.

The Senate, though, disagreed, voting 26-9 to kill the proposal Monday. The House shot it down last week by a 98-47 margin.

“We are not ready for this. I hope we are never ready for this,” said Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea.

Proponents said, though, they’ll continue to pursue the plan in the years ahead because it’s working well in other countries to keep people alive who might well otherwise die alone and neglected.

Rep. Michael Sylvester, D-Portland, who sponsored the bill, said it’s important to have “a safe and supervised location for folks to use the drugs they have acquired elsewhere,” a spot where they can get clean needles, good advice and hope.

“This bill will get our least ones out of dark corners,” said Rep. Karen Vachon, R-Scarborough, a supporter of the plan.

Brakey said the two centers proposed would offer a sanctuary where addicts would know they are still loved and cared for, not just seen as criminals.

Passing the measure, Brakey said, would amount to “a promise that state government won’t come beating their door down to throw them all in cages.”

But Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, said he felt “just shocked” that lawmakers would proposed having safe places to use illegal drugs.

“It’s just not a common sense approach,” Cyrway said. “Why don’t we just do a pilot program right here in the Senate and see how everyone reacts? I just think it’s ridiculous”

The bill called for the Department of Health and Human Services to certify two facilities in the state, staffed with health care personnel, to self-administer previously obtained drugs. Those involved would be immune from state prosecution. It also included a provision for localities to hold a referendum about whether a proposed site could be opened.

Brakey said the funding would come from private donors, not the state. He also said it wouldn’t increase crime or drug use, merely provide a way for addicts to have increased safety until they’re ready to get cleaned up

“We don’t help people by criminalizing them,” said Brakey, the only declared Republican candidate for a U.S. Senate election next year against independent incumbent Angus King.

Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden, said that people who use drugs can hold some jobs and function to some degree in society. Before the government beyond cracking down on drugs a century ago, he said, addicts could often fit in somewhere.

“They weren’t criminals,” he said. “They were suffering.”

Now, Miramant said, after the “complete failure” of the war on drugs — which has seen supplies increase and prices drop — it’s time for a different approach.

He called the proposed centers “a really good idea” that lawmakers ought to support.

Rep. Patrica Hymanson, D-York, who co-chairs the Health and Human Services Committee with Brakey, said when she first heard of the concept, she thought, “Are you kidding me?”

But as she learned more about the successful programs in Vancouver and in Europe, she began to see that “more people are going to die” unless the state finds a new approach.

“They can either die in the shadows or they can be saved,” Hymanson said.

Sanderson said Maine isn’t ready for the proposed safe centers — and shouldn’t be.

She warned they would become “targets for dealers” and give impressionable young people the wrong idea about drugs.

Sanderson said the state ought to step efforts at treatment, not create areas “where illegal drug use gets a blind eye turned toward it.”

Rep. Dwayne Prescott, R-Waterboro, also said a better solution is to create places where addicts can get away from drugs entirely.

Vachon, though, said the measure “invites the possibilities of loving more, judging less, and letting recovery come naturally in its own time. It provides a safe place to use drugs, with a medical support system in place to receive a person when and if they desire to make a positive change.”

Timothy Cheney, a former heroin addict who serves as the chief operating officer of Grace Street Services in Lewiston, told legislators last month that the proposal “is a health care issue and a social justice issue, not a criminal nor a moral issue.”

“How would you feel about this if your child or spouse died in an alley or public bathroom stall?” Cheney asked legislators. “Would it be a moral issue then?”

“This is harm reduction at its finest,” he said. “Meet them where they are at and help to keep them alive. No one deserves to die alone in an alley. Dead addicts do not recover.”

Hymanson said the safe centers are a proposal that needs “to percolate from communities” themselves and vowed to do what she can to help those who pursue the approach in the months and years ahead.

[email protected]

Web only

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.