Bath and Brunswick police departments joined a program that supplies police officers with fentanyl test strips, a tool officers and health officials believe could reduce accidental drug overdoses.

The departments are two of 19 across Maine and Massachusetts to join the Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative’s One2One Engagement to Recovery program. The program supplies officers with fentanyl test strips used to detect the powerful opioid in other drugs, they can distribute to people in their community they think could be at risk of an overdose.

Fentanyl test strips Associated Press

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid often mixed into illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, in inconsistent amounts. According to Dr. Leah Bauer, a physician with Mid Coast Hospital’s Addiction Resource Center, fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and a few flakes can be the difference between life and death, especially if someone doesn’t know it’s there.

“I think (fentanyl tests) can be useful for people engaged in active substance use to help understand what it is they’re using,” said Bauer. “We have seen increases in fentanyl turning up in toxicology screens and the individual wasn’t aware that they were using fentanyl. They’re often surprised when I tell them there was fentanyl in their urine or saliva and they don’t know how it got there because they thought they were using Adderall or a prescription pain pill.”

According to the most recent Maine Monthly Overdose Report, 45 people died of drug overdoses in February, nine of which came from Cumberland County and one came from Sagadahoc County. The month before, 55 people died of drug overdoses, 10 of which from Cumberland County and just one from Sagadahoc County.

Maine recorded its worst year for drug overdoses in 2020, with 502 deaths, surpassing the previous high of 417 deaths in 2017, which at the time was considered the height of the opioid crisis, the Portland Press Herald reported.

Nonpharmaceutical fentanyl is the most frequent cause of death to date in 2021 at 74%, 7% higher than in 2020, the report noted.

An April 7 statement from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention stated a recent spike in drug overdose deaths is largely driven by the use of strong synthetic opioids, including illicitly manufactured fentanyl.

About 88,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States from August 2019 to August 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, according to the CDC.

Bauer said her one hesitation about distributing fentanyl tests is that they could give people a false sense of safety.

“If a test was negative, I would be concerned that individual would assume that substance is safe, but that’s not the case,” said Bauer. “There are a lot of lethal substances besides fentanyl.”

However, Bauer said she generally supports the distribution of fentanyl tests because they, much like NARCAN, a prescription nasal spray used to reverse the effects of a drug overdose, preserve human life. She said they can also be a wake-up call for those with substance use disorder and keep people safe if they’re not ready to “commit to abstinence.”

“In the philosophy of harm reduction, we’re trying to support those people in making safer choices for themselves,” she said. “Information can be powerful.”

Brunswick Police Chief Scott Stewart said he was hesitant when first introduced to the program because “I don’t want people to think we’re condoning drug use.”

However, Stewart said he joined the program because “The bigger picture is we’re trying to stop overdoses and the fentanyl in these drugs is concerning.”

“We’re not condoning drug use, but I also understand that people are still going to use,” said Stewart. “We want to stop overdoses and provide a gateway for people who need help. Our job is to try to save lives.”

Lt.  Sarko Gergerian of the Winthrop, Massachusetts Public Safety and Health Department, said his department has been involved with the fentanyl test strip program since its debut last year. Although it’s difficult to know how many lives the tests saved within his community, Gergerian said the personal connections he has made with those struggling with substance use disorder show the importance of the program.

Gergerian said each time he gives a test kit, “You can feel the energetics of the conversation change when you have an actionable item that demonstrates how much you care about another person not dying.”

Gergerian said he has distributed 55 test kits in total and argues giving people with substance use disorder the tools they need to protect themselves without judgment “is the right thing to do.”

“Knowledge is power and transferring knowledge into the hands of the people we serve so they can do what they’re doing safely is the right thing to do,” he said. “To me, it’s a moral imperative to use police information in a manner that allows us to work as guardians.”

In addition to preserving lives, Gergerian said he believes distributing the tests breaks down the stigma around substance use disorder and builds trust in law enforcement, “as we begin to rapidly shift drug use out of the criminal sphere. … We’re not criminalizing drug use anymore.”

The National Institute of Mental Health designates Substance Use Disorder as a mental health disorder “that affects a person’s brain and behavior, leading to a person’s inability to control their use of substances such as legal or illegal drugs, alcohol, or medications.”

“As people journey through their life and intersect with intoxicating substances, some of them decide to use those intoxicating substances for certain periods of time, some stop completely, some stop partially, and some end up using in a dysregulated manner that leads to overdose,” said Gergerian. “We have to keep people alive until they get to the point where they want to change their behavior in a way that makes sense for them. We don’t have good people and bad people, we just have people and we need to help them.”


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