More than 600 Mainers died from drug overdoses in 2021, the highest number ever. On February 9, the State Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee held a 4-hour public hearing on LD 1862, An Act to Strengthen Maine’s Good Samaritan Laws that would shield anyone trying to save the life of an overdose victim from prosecution. As State Representative Charlotte Warren (D – Hallowell) stated, the expansion of the Good Samaritan law “is about saving lives. The need is very clear based on the fact that we can’t get ahead of overdose deaths. Two people every day. All because people are afraid to call 911.”

Testimony given in favor of the bill was powerful and mentally and emotionally overwhelming at points. The message was clear: if we want to cut into Maine’s record overdose numbers, we must change our approach to how overdoses are handled by emergency responders.

The only people to speak against this bill were the Maine Sheriff’s Association and the Mills Administration via spokespeople from the Department of Public Safety and the Attorney General’s Office. The Attorney General’s official position, as stated by John Risler, is that the AG cannot support legislation that will save lives if that means enabling poor life choices and hindering prosecutions.

State Senator Scott Cyrway, a former cop, repeatedly asked how we would hold users accountable for their drug use if this bill were to pass. Not any particular crime, just the mere act of using drugs requires accountability. And accountability, in Cyrway’s mind, means making arrests.

The opposition to LD 1862 centers on a handful of dubious arguments such as people potentially calling in their own traffic accidents to escape accountability, letting drug dealers with drugs and weapons walk free if they respond to an overdose, etc. However, taking any of these arguments seriously means ignoring more than three hours of testimony to the contrary. 

Maine drug overdose chart 2021

It means disregarding the testimony of neighbors like Wendy Allen who spoke of being left alone to fight wave after wave of overdose, highlighting the temporary stop-gap nature of Narcan and the need for medical intervention. It means disregarding the testimony of people like Chasity Tuell who pointed out that police often ignore the law by prompting probation officers to conduct “random” probation checks or accusing people of being drug dealers at overdose scenes.

And, most disturbingly of all, it means overlooking the lonely dead. Our neighbors, family members, spouses, siblings, and children. I cannot think of anything more terrifying than dying alone knowing that the people who would normally be there with you all fled the scene because the consequences of calling for help were too steep to risk.

And what about the families and the loved ones left behind? There are no answers for them when deaths are unattended. What are they to think when, as Randy Beard testified, they find the people they care for discarded in hallways and dumpsters? 

To get the perspective of the Recovery Community supporting this expansion, I spoke with Kayty Robbins, an organizer with Rise and Grind Recovery, about how she felt hearing some of the arguments that were made against the expansion. I wanted to know how she felt about Cyrway’s persistence that accountability was needed.

“I’m a harm reductionist at heart. I see the Good Sam expansion as an extension of harm reduction because it allows for more understanding and breaks down the barrier for medical response. We understand this is a disease but we want to arrest people for it. You wouldn’t arrest someone for diabetes. It’s ass backwards. Accountability is a part of recovery and if you’re in active use then you aren’t in recovery. That comment was really ignorant and nobody should listen to him. I heard them focus on who gets arrested but as Doug [Dunbar] said at the hearing ‘Fear not, we arrest plenty of people’.”

As an Early Childhood Education advocate I wanted to know about the impact on parents in the community. Are people not calling for fear of having their children taken?

“It’s federal policy that DHHS be called in those circumstances. If someone with prior DHHS involvement were to call in an overdose an investigation would be opened. [S]omeone died of an overdose because they were afraid of losing their children. But jail also does that. Jail also costs employment and income and will break up a family.”

What about the AG’s position against enabling poor decisions and hindering prosecutions?

“Wouldn’t a poor life decision be not calling EMS in an emergency? I believe if it wasn’t about Substance Use he would think so too. He’d want them to if it was a heart attack. It’s not stopping the ability to make arrests, you just can’t arrest people at the scene of a medical emergency. Arresting and jailing people costs us a shit load of money by the way. But here’s my thing, if someone is a hardened criminal, I doubt this is the only opportunity the police will have to pick them up.”

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February 9, 2022 Maine Legislature Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety hearing on LD 1862

What about his concern about someone calling in their own traffic accident?

“The new law doesn’t cover car accidents.”

What about letting drug dealers with backpacks full of drugs and guns walk free?

“That’s not even how drug dealing works. No drug dealer is sticking around that scene and people don’t get high with their dealers. We have a problem with who we are calling drug dealers too. There was a bill last session that would have based that on realistic amounts for personal use. It doesn’t take much to be considered a dealer.”

“I just don’t understand the rationale. When I hear comments like this my thought is you must know that you don’t know what you’re talking about. I listen to my mechanic because I don’t know shit about cars. Why are we listening to people who don’t know anything about our community and why aren’t they listening to the people who live this?”

That sentiment was backed up by AB spokesman Risler’s testimony as well. He admitted that our current policies are based on the failed Fifty Years War on Drugs. And yet here he is, backed by the full weight and authority of the state government with support from state legislators, arguing in favor of doing the exact same things we’ve always done. The cost of that continued failure is two lives lost in Maine every single day. Maybe it’s time for the legislature and the current administration to stop clinging to failed policies and try something different?