- Associated Press - Sunday, February 19, 2017

WALPOLE, Maine (AP) - Two men in long-term recovery from heroin addiction are taking up the challenge of low-cost drug treatment options across the state with a new mobile unit offering services like clean needles and syringes and treatment options.

The nonprofit Chooper’s Foundation’s mobile operation is set to head out to Sanford neighborhoods most impacted by the opioid crisis. The newly refurbished interior features locked storage benches that’ll be filled with the overdose antidote naloxone and a drop-down table for trained volunteers, who can connect addicts with drug treatment options and test them for diseases like HIV.

“We’re losing over one person a day in Maine,” said the foundation’s co-founder Tim Cheney. “Back in the 70s, there was just as much heroin. The issue now is the fentanyl in it.”

The “harm-reduction” movement that emphasizes preventing infection and death from drug use is gaining traction after long drawing concern from those - including Republicans like Gov. Paul LePage - who have said programs like expanding access to naloxone enables addicts. Congress last year ended the nation’s long-standing ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs, though funding still can’t be used on syringes.

Daniel Raymond, policy director for the national advocacy group Harm Reduction Coalition, said these on-the-ground programs meet drug users where they are and connect them with services.

“They’re often the one kind of program in a community that is able to intervene early before people end up in the emergency department or morgue,” he said.

Raymond said in past decades, the fight about needle exchange programs used to play out across “standard ideological fault lines,” while the “just say no” mantra of the 1980s pushed abstinence-based programs that don’t work for everyone.

But today’s drug crisis “is leaving very few families untouched, and people are willing to take every idea on the table,” he said. He said it’s encouraging to see private citizens backing these ideas too, particularly in a state that had 378 drug overdose deaths last year.

More police departments across New England are carrying naloxone, but Cheney, a member of Maine’s Substance Abuse Services Commission, said the change is happening too slowly. After several drug treatment facilities have shuttered, the foundation’s founders say addicts aren’t left with many options.

“We reach out to people, treat them with dignity and say we’re here for you to create treatment plans if you ever want to,” co-founder Adrian Hooper said.

It’s cheaper and more effective to rely on treatment and prevention programs than the criminal justice system, he added. Relapse is expected, Cheney said, and addicts need a menu of treatment options to choose from for recovery. “It never took me more than one hour after treatment or jail” to start using again, he said.

But still, naloxone can be expensive, and Cheney said the foundation could only afford the kits because of a discounted, pending deal with a pharmaceutical company.

Cheney - a successful entrepreneur who cycled in and out of jails as a teen heroin addict - and Hooper - a former sailing captain and consultant for substance-related capital murder cases - started the foundation in 2015. Their projects range from a comprehensive treatment and recovery resources guide, to community naloxone trainings, to a first-of-its-kind app providing communities with real-time information on drug overdoses.

The mobile operation is a collaboration with Sanford Police Chief Tom Connolly, who’s criticized Maine for moving too slowly to address a public health crisis. Connolly, who made the comments after Sanford saw six suspected overdoses in one day last June, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The foundation is also a partner of Grace Street Recovery Services, whose programs include the first medication-assisted treatment and recovery residence in New England.

Meanwhile, Cheney said he envisions more mobile treatment options and eventually, “substations” in every community staffed by nurse practitioners.

“We’re way behind in Maine, but we’re way behind in most of the country,” Cheney said, noting many states are not acting fast enough.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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