Portland’s Overdose Prevention Task Force has suspended monthly meetings until at least June 2019, sparking concerns among harm reduction activists who say the group is failing to implement strategies that could immediately save lives.
In an email sent December 13 to members of the Task Force, public health official Bridget Rauscher wrote that the group's monthly meetings would be put on hold in order to “focus on gaining additional insight and developing the tools necessary for a comprehensive approach to our community's needs.”
Several City Task Force members have been engaged in the Community Opioid Overdose Response ECHO Project through Maine Quality Counts, a Manchester-based organization that specializes in health care policy. As part of the ECHO Project, Portland's Task Force joins 11 other communities in Maine to come up with a response to overdose deaths focusing on four key areas: data collection, treatment capacity, naloxone distribution, and linkages with the recovery community.
The Portland Task Force also plans to finalize decisions about the future of their 15-year-old group alongside this stakeholder group.
But members of the advocacy group Portland OPS (Portland Overdose Prevention Site) worry that time is running out for the city Task Force to effectively address opiate overdoses, which took the lives of one Mainer a day during the first half of 2018, according to the Attorney General's Office.
They also wonder whether their activism has impacted the Task Force's suspension of future meetings.
Because for months, members of Portland OPS have been attending the city Task Force meetings in an effort to start a dialogue about opening a safe injection site in Portland — showing data that they decrease overdose deaths — but have encountered “significant resistance.”
According to Elaine Shamos, a member of Portland OPS and former educator at Dartmouth Medical School, during the Task Force’s last meeting in November, assistant city manager and former police chief Michael Sauschuck became “visibly frustrated” at Shamos’ questions regarding safe injection sites.
“It seemed to me the Task Force was obsessed with data collection versus implementing immediate strategies which could help the dying,” she said.
Another member of Portland OPS, Glenn Simpson, said that his talks with the Task Force about safe injection sites were met with “aggressive disinterest.”
“All the task force wanted to do was shut down any conversations about an overdose prevention site,” said Simpson. “Quite literally, they talk and we die.”
City spokesperson Jessica Grondin told the Phoenix that the Public Health Department did not have a comment on the effectiveness of safe injection sites and that the city’s Overdose Prevention Task Force doesn’t have an official position on it because it’s “bound by strategies that fall within the law.”
Founded by harm reduction activist Jesse Harvey, the 20-member Portland OPS will continue to lobby for a safe injection site in Portland, despite the fact that the concept is federally illegal. Harvey said that reluctance over safe injection sites because of legal concerns is a “BS excuse” that’s “politically convenient.”
“It’s a cop out because other cities have adopted safe injection sites,” said Harvey, who mentioned communities in Australia and Europe. “They don’t care enough about drug users to challenge the oppressive laws that impact them.”
Their illegality in the U.S. is also why safe injection sites are not a part of Governor-elect Janet Mills’ strategy to combat the opiate crisis.
“Safe injection sites are a potential life-saving option but face significant legal hurdles,” said Mills spokesperson Scott Ogden. “Governor-elect Mills will pursue every practical and legal avenue to address the opiate crisis, making treatment options available at every venue, including medication-assisted treatment and recovery coaches on call at every clinic, every law enforcement agency and every emergency room, and a true hub-and-spokes treatment model across the state.”
Two studies from the first safe injection site in North America (in Vancouver, Canada) showed that the facility was effective at reducing harm and saving lives — within a 500-meter radius of the facility, fatal overdose deaths decreased 35 percent compared with a 9.3 percent decrease in the rest of the city.