Maine Can Lead by Allowing Harm Reduction Health Centers 

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Krystal Woods is a resident of Bangor and an organizer with the Maine Advocacy Project.

Deep in the boroughs of New York City, harm reduction was birthed among the Queer and Trans Black, Indigenous and People of Color (QTBIPOC) community in response to the impact of the AIDS crisis that was allowed to run rampant in their communities due to the flagrantly biased grossly negligent care of Black and trans women.

Black trans activists rallied and liberated clean syringes for injecting drug users and worked in tandem with AIDS activists to teach people how to use them safely; sex workers tracked data about violent/assaultive clients to protect each other that directly impacted how prison abolitionists track systemic violence; the Black Panthers, despite opposition and intentional vilification, put their boots on the ground to demand community-based recovery programs in their communities; and community organizations of trans women of color created networks of chosen family, safe and shared housing, for young people.

Recently, some have chosen to dismiss harm reduction centers as unresearched. That is simply not true. Harm reduction centers, or overdose prevention centers as they are popularly referred, have existed for over 35 years and nearly 200 are currently operating in 14 countries around the world today. They are proven to be effective, and they are the result of the invaluable work of BIPOC and trans community activities around the world. Now, it’s long past due that Maine recognizes these centers as a critical tool to combatting overdose death.  

Maine has an opportunity to lead our country in collective healing by taking responsibility for the devastation of the overdose epidemic that has ravaged our communities, through the harms brought on by opioids and the failed War on Drugs. And that starts by authorizing the creation of harm reduction health centers in Maine, either through LD 1159 or LD 1364.

By allowing harm reduction centers to open their doors and serve the community, we can provide people space and dignity which creates an opportunity for them to start making decisions to prioritize their health — and they do. At Vancouver’s Insite — the first public, legally sanctioned overdose prevention center in North America which opened in 2003 — research found that people who use the site are more than twice as likely to access detoxification services and 70% less likely to share needles, resulting in a 35% decrease in overdose deaths within 500 meters of the facility within three years of opening – compared with an only 9% reduction in overdoses in other areas of the city. OnPoint NYC, which runs two overdose prevention centers in New York City, has served over 2,000 people since opening the two sites one year ago and has saved more than 600 lives.

In Maine, the BIPOC community has been tasked with recovering ourselves from the devastating effects of the opioid crisis; but Americans have been creating support systems outside the societal frameworks of oppression and exploitation for generations. Harm reduction has been saving our lives for decades and it’s critical we codify these proven strategies into law, like with LD 1159.

As communities on the frontlines of this overdose crisis, we’ve entrusted the Mills Administration to begin unpacking the bias we see on a daily basis by breaking down stereotypes, changing language, and to be willing to lead the states by example. Mainers are rallying in their communities, at both state and federal levels, positioning their lived experience as the authority and providing proven solutions that we have been using to save our own lives when our government was slow to act.

It’s time that Gov. Janet Mills, the Maine Legislature, and all of Maine’s elected decision makers recognize the proven harm reduction practices dating back to the 1960s, both here and across the globe, as concrete solutions to our worsening overdose epidemic.

Mainers did not create this devastation out of poor moral constitution. It is our fortitude and self-preservation that has kept us alive, fighting, and organized into countless grassroots and non-profit organizations across the globe — empowering our own voices and lived experience, saving ourselves, and paving the way to create real and meaningful systemic change in the lives of those affected by addiction. This is a type of change that the war on drugs has never and will never create.

Source: Bangor Daily News