By: Lizzy Handschy, Co-Executive Director Portland Overdose Prevention Society
On Monday, July 15th over one thousand people gathered for the state’s first-ever Opioid Response Summit. For many who work in harm reduction, whether providing services or working to shift policy, the celebratory tone of the event felt quite off.
Maine’s Director of Opioid Response, Gordon Smith, was on the verge of tears when he introduced Governor Janet Mills. He listed the accomplishments of the state since she took office. Even the title of the summit, Turning the Tide: Maine’s Path Forward in Addressing the Opioid Crisis, seemed to indicate that the Maine state government has had success.
Harm reduction is a field in which people work to reduce the harms people who use drugs might experience linked to their drug use, whether or not they are ready to stop using. People who work in harm reduction and people who use drugs are, thus, the nearest to the devastation being wrought by the War on Drugs and opioid overdose death crisis. However, harm reduction workers and people who use drugs aren’t exactly celebrating the Mills’ Administration’s accomplishments.
Lessons from the past
After Governor Mills spoke, all but literally patting herself on the back, keynote speaker, journalist and author of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” Sam Quinones took the stage. During his speech he compared the current moment in the overdose-death crisis to the early years of the HIV crisis.
I believe he made this comparison in order to show that we have the potential to revolutionize healthcare based on our response to the harms currently devastating our communities. However, if we actually draw out this comparison between the federal response to HIV/AIDS and the state of Maine’s response to the overdose death crisis of today, it paints a very different picture of who is responding and how, than the image Quinones intended.
First, in both instances, discrimination against and marginalization of impacted people is high. In the 1980s, legislators proposed quarantining and tattooing HIV positive people. Today, people who use drugs are locked up in jails and prisons, harassed by police, and systematically denied access to the healthcare they need.
Left to help each other
Second, regular people are working together to care for one another and save each other’s lives, outside of the institutional healthcare settings where services are inadequate.
In the 1980s, queer communities founded AIDS Service Organizations to care for their sick and created buyers’ clubs to bring treatment in from other countries.
Today, people who use drugs are distributing much needed safe-use supplies and reversing the overdoses of their friends and loved ones with naloxone. Many more overdoses are reversed by other people who use drugs than are reversed by emergency medical services.
Finally, and this is perhaps the most striking, as well as chilling, similarity, the government response has been measly. In either case, the government response is nothing to celebrate.
Ronald Reagan did not publicly address AIDS policy until 1987, when 20,849 Americans had already died. He also called for reductions in federal spending on AIDS through the 1980s. Reagan’s presidency will forever carry the dark stain of his inaction in response to HIV/AIDS.
The Good Samaritan law and increased naloxone distribution that have been enacted so far by Janet Mills and our state legislature are the bare minimum response needed to save the lives of people who use drugs.
If Mills does not act swiftly and boldly, by funding overdose prevention sites, removing one-for-one needle exchange rules, and decriminalizing both syringe possession and possession of all controlled substances, her term as governor will be similarly marred in the memories of Maine people.