The Scarborough Police Department can’t fill a leadership role better suited to the state.
It was one of the rare good news stories of the opiate overdose crisis: Members of one police department decided to do something to stop the spread of what looked to be more of a sickness than a crime.
Scarborough cops offered addicts a deal. If you want to get clean, come into the station and we won’t arrest you. Instead, the local PD would do what it could to find you a bed in a residential treatment program.
The initiative is called “Operation Hope.” Now, though, hope is about all that the backers of the program have.
It missed out on a federal grant and is having trouble finding free treatment beds where they can place people. A small amount of state money helps, but it will not keep the program running indefinitely.
“All I knew when we started this was that people were dying and needed help,” Scarborough Police Chief Robert Moulton said earlier this month. “We will do whatever we can as long as we can. We don’t want to be in a position where we’re shutting our doors.”
Moulton and his department deserve praise for taking this problem on, but we should not be surprised that their well-intentioned effort is falling short. The opiate abuse crisis is not just a law enforcement problem, but also a challenge for all of our institutions, and one in which we are falling short. The story of Operation Hope says what is really needed is the kind of coordinated statewide public health campaign we would expect to see in the middle of an epidemic.
Years into the crisis, we still lack adequate public education about the nature of the challenge that is killing an average of one Mainer every day.
Too many people, including high-ranking public officials, think that being addicted to opioids is a matter of choice, and all that’s required to treat it is tough love and willpower. This false belief has been behind Gov. LePage’s misguided efforts to restrict access to the overdose antidote drug naloxone, which, he claims, perpetuates addiction by removing the terrifying consequences.
But drug addiction is no more a matter of “choice” than heart disease or lung cancer are choices, even when they’re brought on by unhealthy behaviors.
Some people are able to quit opioids on their own once they become dependent, but the vast majority need treatment, and in most cases, successful treatment involves medication. Needing medicine to control the symptoms of addiction is not a moral failing – it’s just body chemistry.
The medical community understands this, and that’s why organizations like Maine Behavioral Health are proceeding with integrated treatment programs that combine medication with counseling. Police officers, like those in the Scarborough department, understand it, and are pushing for more treatment alongside traditional police work.
But state and federal government should be playing a much bigger role. Treatment is expensive, and many drug users do not have health insurance. If the government doesn’t make it available, the problem will just keep getting worse.