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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Maine Governor LePage wants law enforcement to stop heroine problems

It's impossible to understand how Maine's Governor Paul LePage can somehow expect law enforcement to stop the state's heroine invasion. Now, the Maine governor is even saying he'll direct the National Guard to become involved, to stop the illegal drug trade that's invading the state like an epidemic of bird flu. 

When key legislators wrote to suggest advice about including addiction treatment in his strategy, the response was a flippant slogan, rather than a thoughtful letter. Responding to Mark Eaves, the House speaker's suggested strategies about the "drug summit", the governor sent a copy of a disdainful wall hanging and wrote that Eves is 'free to have any summit you chooses'.

Instead of seeking the advice of experts and combining addiction treatment with rehabilitation, the outspoken Maine governor has decided to create criminals out of addicts. Of course, too many are driven to criminal behavior, because they're unable to find treatment. 

Meanwhile, the drugs keep flowing into Maine like an infestation of killer bees.

Transcript from Weekend Edition National Public Radio and Scott Simon:

Like so many other states, Maine is in the grip of an opiate epidemic. 

Other states have expanded drug treatment as part of the response. Maine has not. There are fewer treatment options than just a few years ago. The Republican Governor Paul LePage is pursuing instead a drug-enforcement strategy. Maine Public Radio's Susan Sharon reports.

SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: A major blow came in May when one of Maine's largest treatment providers announced it was closing. Mercy Recovery Center placed much of the blame on cuts in state funding. There was already a shortage of long-term residential treatment beds. And then last week, a methadone clinic in southern Maine also announced it was shutting its doors.

For those who want to safely get off heroin, the first step toward recovery is often detox, if you can get in.

LAUREN WERT: Yesterday we had someone count, and we had turned away 113 people this month because the program was full.

SHARON: Lauren Wert is the director of nursing at Milestone Foundation in Portland. This is Maine's largest city, the epicenter of the heroin crisis, and Milestone is the only residential detox around. It has just 16 beds available for three- to seven-day stays. At the small nurses station, Wert says she and her staff gently inform a steady stream of callers that they can't help them out.

WERT: Oftentimes people cry. They're asking questions like, where else do we go? What do I do? He feels like he's going to die.

SHARON: Wert says there used to be places to refer clients, but now all the staff can say is, I'm so sorry.

MARY DOWD: It's frustrating not to be able to get people services who desperately want it.

SHARON: Dr. Mary Dowd, medical director for Milestone, says the challenge is that most heroin addicts can't get sober without replacement medications, like methadone and Suboxone. At a roundtable discussion in Maine this week, U.S. Drug Control Policy director Michael Botticelli said, increasing access to them in Maine and elsewhere is essential because they work.

MICHAEL BOTTICELLI: People on medication-assisted treatment stay in treatment and they don't die and they don't get infectious diseases as a result of their injection drug-use issues.

SHARON: But in Maine there are long waiting lists for methadone and Suboxone, even for those who have insurance or money to pay for treatment out-of-pocket. For those who don't, Dowd says the only other options are the ER, jail or to try to score a short-term stay at Milestone.

DOWD: And it's not treatment; it's detox. They get the drugs out of their system, but then they don't get treatments. So they have to keep coming back and back and back.

ERIC BREWER: I've probably been here 10 times in the last six months probably.

SHARON: Eric Brewer is 37 years old. He is a longtime heroin addict who has spent time in prison on a drug trafficking conviction. He says he stayed sober for more than five years, but eventually relapsed and wound up at Milestone.

BREWER: Luckily this time, things fell into place for me, and I have someone who volunteered to pay for my first month in a sober house.

SHARON: Brewer has no insurance and no money to pay for long-term residential treatment, and he's hardly alone. Two years ago the state dropped hundreds of single adults from state Medicaid rolls. Under the leadership of Republican Governor Paul LePage, Maine refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and set caps on the length of time Medicaid patients receive drug treatment. Dr. Vijay Amarendran oversees methadone and Suboxone services at Acadia Hospital in Bangor.

VIJAY AMARENDRAN: We need to provide more insurance coverage for people, not less insurance coverage. Clearly, that doesn't make sense.

SHARON: Treatment providers and law enforcement personnel told director Botticelli that what they really need is more federal funding for treatment and recovery. Governor LePage says he's satisfied with the $72 million spent on drug treatment in the state. What concerns him more, he says, is how little is spent on drug enforcement. He's frustrated that Democratic lawmakers have not agreed to hire more drug agents. In a recent radio address, he proposed using the Maine Army National Guard for that purpose.

PAUL LEPAGE: We must provide solutions on how to disrupt the drug supply and hunt down the traffickers.

SHARON: Critics say that's a misguided strategy at a time when members of law enforcement are confronting heroin addicts overdosing on the side of the road. We can take them to the hospitals, said one small-town police sergeant, but after a couple of days they get released to the streets and do it again because there's nowhere else for them to go. For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon.

It's incredible for Governor LePage to continue to act so childishly when cooperation with  the Maine legislature would be so much more productive than acrimony.  

Meanwhile, drug enforcement isn't likely going to take kindly to having the Maine National Guard working in the war on the state's growing heroin problem. Police officers are trained to protect the public.  The National Guard are trained in war strategies.  There is a cultural divide and for the two organizations to work together will create even more acrimony in Maine.  

As a matter of fact, just picture the cover of The Boston Globe, when Maine police officers are pictured alongside an image of the National Guard, fighting heroine addiction. It's a tragically laughable image. Surely, this NPR story on Weekend Edition will not improve Maine's economy nor will it enhance the reputation of the state being "safe".  

In fact, the number of heroin users seeking treatment in Maine tripled from 1,115 in 2010 to 3,463 in 2014, while the number of overdose deaths rose from seven in 2011 to 57 last year. Overall state spending on substance-abuse treatment increased from $57.5 million in 2007-08 to a peak of $76.7 million in 2011-12, then declined to $71.6 million in 2014-15, according to figures from the state Department of Health and Human Services. The Legislature funded part, but not all, of the LePage administration’s requests this year for additional drug enforcement agents.

It's time Governor LePage learned
 how to work with people rather than bully them.

As for law enforcement's role to stop Maine's heroine imports, the state's public safety personnel are already consumed with saving lives. They are not specialists in drug trafficking.  

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