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Could safe injection sites help curb Maine's drug epidemic


Originally Published: 02/27/2018

Post Date: 02/27/2018

by WTME Channel 8 | David Charns


David Carns, WMTW Channel 8 New Anchor, interviews Tim Cheney , co-founder of Chooper's Guideo and owner of ENSO Recovery, a Medication Assisted Treatment program with offices in Portland and Sanford, Maine, about the role Safe Injection Sites could play in curbing the incidence of opioid overdose mortality.


Could safe injection sites help curb Maine's drug epidemic?



Supporters argue safe injection sites save lives, provide pathway to recovery

"At least we know that during the hours of operation that people who are injecting no one will die," Timothy Cheney, owner of ENSO Recovery, said from his Portland office.

Could safe injection sites help curb Maine's drug epidemic from Timothy Cheney on Vimeo.


Cheney would like to see a safe injection site come to Maine. They are facilities where drug users can inject themselves with a drug, likely heroin, under the supervision of a doctor. There are about 100 of these facilities in Europe and Canada. The United States' first site could be coming to Philadelphia or Seattle. Both cities are close to opening one.

Maine lost 418 lives last year to drugs. Cheney argues safe injection sites not only would cut down on overdoses, but would also provide a pathway to treatment.

"You eliminate -- while they're in the facility -- the possibility or probability of death," he said

Recent studies show the sites also save taxpayer money.

A study released last year in the Harm Reduction Journal called "Mitigating the heroin crisis in Baltimore, MD, USA," looked at the cost-saving of a safe injection site coming to that city.

Baltimore had more than 250 drug overdoses in 2015, the study said. One safe injection site, costing the city $1.8 million would save six lives and $7.8 million in other costs, the study found.

For Cheney this fight is personal. He has been sober for nearly 37 years.

"Tim was a heroin addict in New York City," Cheney said, referring to himself. "Tim was in some pretty non-glamorous situations."

In one situation in 1980, Cheney was found blue and not breathing after an overdose. The incident left him paralyzed, but he has since regained his ability to walk.

A safe injection site, he said, may have gotten him help sooner.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling said safe injection sites should be part of the conversation.

Portland is already home to a needle exchange, a harm reduction program where used needles are exchanged with clean ones. The exchange limits the spread of blood-borne viruses like hepatitis and HIV.

"Safe injection sites should be part of the conversation," Strimling said. "I recognize why people might see it as controversial, but there have been a lot of things that have been controversial that have ultimately made good sense."

Strimling said it was too early though to say whether his city is ready, but said he is open to the idea.

Last year, Maine's Joint Committee on Health and Human Services heard testimony in Augusta about the possibility of a safe injection site. Cheney testified.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle voted the idea down. Some said while they supported the idea, their constituents would not.

"Before I understood safe injection sites, I could not believe anyone could propose to open a site where people could inject an illegal substance," Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-York, said. "As I learned how this site would save lives, prevent infectious disease, help lead people to treatment, I grew to support a pilot study. I support the creation of a pilot program but the title of my job is representative. As a representative voting for my district, I do not think my constituents would want me to support this before they understood it better."

"We're trying to stop that," Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, said after the initial hearing. "I don't think we're going to stop that by saying, 'It's not OK to do it here, but it is OK to do it here.'"

The executive board of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association agrees.

"It is bad public policy to normalize or facilitate the use of opioids," the association's executive director, Robert Schwartz, a retired police chief, said.

"This is not a moral issue. This is not a criminal issue," Cheney said. "Nobody wakes up, goes to school in fourth grade, raises their hand on career day and says, 'When I grow up, I want to be homeless, I want to be sick, I want to lose my family, I want to overdose.'"

Portland's Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee has added safe injection sites to its work plan as an item it would like to discuss this year, City Council member Belinda Ray said.

There is no meeting scheduled about a Portland-based safe injection site nor a timeline for when a safe injection site could come to Maine.

Out of the 418 Maine drug overdose deaths last year, the youngest person was 18. The oldest was 94.

The rise in deaths is primarily due to illicit fentanyl, which is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin.

A total of 376 Mainers died from drug overdoses in 2016. The 11 percent increase from 2016 to 2017 is smaller than the 38 percent increase from 2015 to 2016.