Watch Portland’s police chief explain why the war on drugs is a failure

The opioid epidemic that killed at least 286 Mainers this year cannot be beaten unless it is treated as a public health crisis, Portland’s police chief said during his recent TEDxDirigo talk. 

“We have to own the fact that the war on drugs was a miserable failure,” Michael Sauschuck told a crowd gathered at Portland’s State Theatre in November. 

During a talk as part of the TEDXDirigo speaker series — which was made available online this week — the chief stressed that police should not see themselves as soldiers in the war on drugs. Treating those struggling with addiction as mere criminals blinded him and other officers to clues that might have helped prevent the mass drugs deaths in Maine and across the country in recent years, Sauschuck said.

Forty-six Portlanders were among Maine’s 272 fatal overdoses in 2015, which was the deadliest year for drug users on record until this year. Before that 2014 was the deadliest year on record with 208 overdose deaths.

Portland this year had 35 overdose deaths by Sept. 30. The final number of fatalities won’t be known until early in 2017.

But the Portland police chief said that part of the reason he personally — and law enforcement more broadly — got the issue “wrong” was that drug users were tallied and treated as abstract criminals, rather than specific people with a “life-threatening brain disease.” And he had harsh words for those who might still believe that enforcing drug laws is the way to beat addiction.

“The unfortunate reality about stopping crime in 2016, is that we arrest everybody and that is an incredibly shortsighted and lazy approach to problem solving,” said Sauschuck. “The criminal justice system as it is currently made up epitomizes the definition of crazy.”

In September, Portland police joined several other departments across the state in carrying Narcan, a medication that can save lives by reversing the effects of a drug overdose. Maine police forces have also set up other initiatives to help those battling addiction, such as the Scarborough Police’s Operation Hope, which helps place people in recovery programs.

But in Maine there are also a dearth of options available to people trying to beat drugs. Until October, the state only had one detox center, Portland’s Milestone Foundation, and the second in Bangor will not open for several months.

“This is a public health crisis that is wiping out an entire generation and until we put the time, energy and investment and resources into this we are going to continue to fail and lose our neighbors and lose our family members,” said Sauschuck.