Operation Hope Is Saving Maine's Opioid Addicts

By Brian Whitney 12/06/16

"I was using heroin, meth, bath salts, pretty much whatever I could get my hands on...I have a year clean now. There is no doubt in my mind [Operation Hope] saved my life."

Someone with a flourescent vest reading "Community Protection"
Whether you love cops, or hate them, one can’t deny they're in a tough place when it comes to drugs.

For most people who use heroin and other hardcore illegal drugs, having any sort of interaction with the police is a nightmare. Other than death, dealing with the cops when you are using or holding any amount of drugs is pretty much the worst possible outcome that one can imagine. But for Maine residents that are deep in the throes of heroin addiction, if you go into the Scarborough Police Department even while possessing drugs, you will be directed to Operation Hope. They not only will not bust you, they just might help save your life.

Operation Hope is a program aimed at helping Mainers who have substance use disorder. So far it has placed more than 200 Mainers in long-term treatment and rehabilitation programs. The program relies on scholarship services provided by a national network of treatment facilities.

Whether you love cops, or hate them, one can’t deny they have long been stuck between a rock and a hard place when dealing with drug dealers and users in their local communities. If police departments target local dealers without doing anything about the drug demand side of things, they don’t accomplish a whole lot. The demand for drugs is still there, and another dealer soon steps in to fill the void. And why not? There is a lot of money to be made, if you are willing to take the risk.

Targeting the user doesn’t do a whole lot either. Arresting your average drug user without allowing them access to treatment and recovery services continues the cycle of substance use, arrest, incarceration and release. Sometimes these people eventually get better on their own, sometimes they just keep using and stay in the criminal justice system, and other times they die—but no matter what happens, the current system of arresting users does next to nothing to stop the problem.

Maine is one of many states struggling with this issue. Statistics showed that between 2011 and 2014, heroin-related deaths increased by 714%, while those caused by fentanyl went up 378%. And those numbers keep rising.

At the same time, funding and programs to treat substance use disorder have been cut, many treatment centers and programs have closed, and access to government-funded health care has been reduced. While everyone in Maine recognizes that their state is suffering a heroin-opiate "epidemic," politicians and government officials such as Maine Gov. Paul LePage have been slow to respond—or when he did respond, it was embarrassing

Scarborough is a town in Southern Maine, just south of Portland. While much of Scarborough is your typical suburb of a Northeastern city, it is also home to gorgeous beaches lined with expensive homes. It evokes the image of the kind of place you would go to find awesome fried clams while on vacation, much more than the kind of place you would go to score heroin.

But yet, it was there. According to Scarborough police officer John Gill, who handles Operation Hope media affairs on behalf of the police department, “In our own relatively affluent and quiet suburban community, we had already experienced one overdose death and had administered naloxone to reverse the deadly effects of overdoses an alarming nine times. At the same time, we assessed that 80 to 85 percent of property crimes in our community such as thefts, burglaries, and shoplifting incidents, were drug-related as people sought to fund their drug addictions.“

Gill and the rest of the Scarborough police department figured there had to be a better way. He reached out to Stephen Cotreau, Program Manager at the Portland Recovery Center, to try and get some help.

Cotreau says, “When Officer Gill first contacted me, it was not about starting this program. He was encountering people whom he was having to arrest for theft and petty crimes. He said that 90 percent of the time, the crimes had to do with substance use disorder. He would have to arrest them of course, but also wanted to also offer them ‘a way out.’ This started our discussion. We talked about a flyer with local resources. It was a learning curve for him that there were not enough local resources for people with these issues. I thought, thank God, someone else to help. I had been at this battle for years and felt that we were all alone. I did not know where it would lead, but more soldiers on the field could not be bad.”

The Portland Recovery Center’s role with Operation Hope is to train volunteers, known as "Angels," and to assist them as they work with people at the police department. The center also has volunteers that call all over the country to seek treatment beds. They follow up with people after they have been placed in treatment to see how they are doing and to offer further support, acting as peers in recovery.

Through Operation Hope, Scarborough police officers have received special training on addiction-related issues, which includes the perspective of those in recovery. This enables officers to better interact with and assist persons suffering from substance use disorder. As officers respond to calls for service and incidents in which addiction or heroin/opiate abuse is known or suspected, the officer provides an Operation Hope flyer to the individual or family members and offer police support and assistance in getting help. 

Not only that, but any person who enters the Scarborough Police Department and requests help through Operation Hope is allowed to voluntarily turn in heroin, opioids, needles and drug paraphernalia without being arrested or charged with any crime.

Once the person requests help for their addiction under Operation Hope, they are initially screened by a police officer to determine eligibility for participation in a treatment program. If they are found to meet program eligibility requirements, they are assigned an Operation Hope volunteer “Angel” who walks them through the process toward detox and recovery. This includes immediate placement in rehabilitation and treatment programs whenever possible. 

The volunteer “Angels” are a mix of people. Some are currently in recovery from addiction and personally understand and empathize with what the program participant is experiencing. Others are community members who wish to address the issue of addiction and help others.

When people have completed a rehabilitation program through Operation Hope, they can continue to promote their recovery by maintaining a relationship with people at the Portland Recovery Community Center while utilizing the support services it provides.

Does it work? According to Erica Maxim, it does. She walked into the Scarborough Police Department in October 2015, seeking help after five years of using heroin. She now has not used heroin for more than a year. She said, "Without Operation Hope or Scarborough police or any resources like that, I'm sure a lot of people would still be in addiction or worse, dead. That could have been me, but I'm sitting here today, still alive.”

Officer Gill says, “The Operation Hope walk-ins to date number 424. This includes 244 males and 180 females aged 17 to 51. They include residents of 15 of Maine’s 16 counties. Following screening and eligibility determination, 214 people were placed in long-term treatment programs. One hundred and forty eight of the 214 persons (69%) lacked health care coverage or insurance which would have allowed them to obtain treatment on own. Operation Hope has utilized 72 treatment facilities in 10 different states. Our volunteer 'Angels' and recovery partners community followed up with 98 of the initial Operation Hope clients concerning their sobriety and recovery. Seventy nine self-reported they were doing well and living recovery.”

One of those people is Mike Greenleaf, who told me, “I had been using for a long time and I was trying to get my life together. But I didn't have anywhere to go to get help, I didn't have insurance, I didn’t have any money. Just over a year ago I relapsed. I was using heroin, meth, bath salts, pretty much whatever I could get my hands on. One day everything got really crazy really quick. Things were going really bad. I called Steve at the recovery center. He told me to check out Operation Hope. Pretty much right away I had a plane ticket paid for by the Scarborough police department to a rehab in Florida and got a scholarship to go there for free. I have a year clean now. There is no doubt in my mind it saved my life."

While the community has responded favorably, there are some issues. Cotreau says, “Some criticism is that we are sending people away from their community and their natural supports. I do not disagree with this, it is just any port in a storm. Some other criticism is that we do not offer medication-assisted treatment (MAT). I would also agree. The only option that we have for those that are uninsured, is the treatment that is donated to us. To date, no one has offered free MAT. One of my fears is that the community at large sees this as a ‘solution.’ This is not a sustainable program. Free treatment is getting harder and harder to find. Without a permanent funding source, the program is doomed.”

And as for the relationships between members of the police department and drug users? Officer Gill says, “From a personal, human perspective, the responses we have seen from people suffering from substance use disorder have been remarkable. It takes a tremendous amount of courage for these folks to walk through the doors of a police department to ask for help. Most of these folks have spent the better part of their adult lives trying to avoid the police. When they are so sick that they are willing to come to us for help, that serves as a clear sign of their commitment to get better.”

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Brian Whitney has been a prisoner advocate, a landscaper, and a homeless outreach worker. He has written or coauthored numerous books in addition to writing for AlterNetTheFixPacific Standard MagazinePaste Magazine, and many other publications. He has appeared or been featured in Inside Edition, Fox News, People.com, Cracked.com, True Murder, Savage Love and True Crime Garage. He is appearing at CrimeCon in 2019. You can find Brian on Facebook or at Brianwhitneyauthor.com.