Spate of heroin overdoses reignites political debate on fighting addiction

Good morning from Augusta, where the question of the day seems to be: How should Maine fight a dangerous, sometimes lethal epidemic?

The state’s addiction to heroin has been thrown into sharp relief in recent weeks. There was the heartbreaking story in the Washington Post about how heroin addiction claimed the life of a young Falmouth man and shattered his family. That was followed quickly by a gut-wrenching. warts-and-all obituary in this paper, written by the deceased’s former husband, who detailed the downward spiral into addiction that killed his ex-wife

Then, as first reported by the Portland Press Herald, came 14 heroin overdoses in Maine’s largest city — two that were fatal — in a 24-hour time span last weekend.

My friend Stephanie was witness to one of those, though the context of 13 others was unknown to me when I stumbled into her, shaken, in Monument Square on Friday afternoon. She told me she’d just come from the Harbor View Memorial Park where she saw a man, unconscious from an overdose. Other men with him, presumably his friends, tried to slap him awake, she said, but gave up around the time she called for an ambulance. Stephanie said she thought the victim was dead, though paramedics were able to revive him, presumably with the drug Narcan. 

With more stories like that one emerging every week, and the rate of heroin use and overdoses skyrocketing, policymakers in Augusta are once again zeroing in on fighting the epidemic — setting the stage for a renewed debate in the next session about the proper balance between boosting the efforts of law enforcement and increasing funding for addiction treatment. 

Everyone recognizes that both are needed if Maine has any hope of vanquishing this deadly adversary, but where to draw the line emerged as one of the most contentious debates last session.

Gov. Paul LePage has focused most of his attention on fighting the supply side of the drug epidemic. He proposed seven new Maine DEA agents, four new assistant attorneys general and four new district court judges, all of which would focus on fighting the trafficking of drugs into the state. The Legislature agreed to a pared down version of the plan. 

On Wednesday, LePage said he’d convene a panel of “experts” on drug addiction — law enforcement officers and addiction treatment specialists alike — to come up with a new path forward.

But he also urged lawmakers to reconsider his original proposal to boost law enforcement, placing the blame for Maine’s heroin epidemic squarely at the Legislature’s feet. 

“How many more Mainers must die before you commit the resources we need to fight this drug epidemic?” he said in a letter to lawmakers. 

Democrats in the Legislature have argued that the increases to law enforcement they funded are enough, and what Maine really needs is more resources for treating addiction. That would address the demand for heroin, they argue. 

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, responded to LePage’s letter, saying the governor’s refusal to expand Medicaid to 70,000 low-income Mainers and other cuts to government health care that kicked nondisabled childless adults off the program have left many addicts without access to treatment. (LePage’s administration says there’s federal money available to treat uninsured addicts, though that case surprised many treatment providers. See Jackie Farwell’s story for more on that.)

He also praised the Legislature for “listening to medical experts” and rejecting the governor’s proposal to cut methadone treatment while expanding access to the overdose antidote Narcan over the governor’s objections.

“The longer the governor keeps the blinders on, the more Maine families will suffer,” Eves said. “… When the governor is ready to have an honest discussion about addressing this crisis in a comprehensive way, I will be right there at the table with him.”

With the heroin addiction crisis making headlines every day, and everyone in Augusta committed to fighting it, there should be some room for policymakers at the State House to do something meaningful in the next legislative session, as long as all the finger-pointing doesn’t get in the way. — Mario Moretto, BDN.

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Supreme Court opinion in LePage veto case could be released today

The State House press corps will be hitting “refresh” on the Supreme Judicial Court’s website all morning, awaiting the release of the justices’ opinion(s) in the case of Gov. Paul LePage’s attempt to veto 65  bills that the Legislature says have already become law.

The court heard oral arguments just last week, but the case schedule was expedited” (Chief Justice Leigh Saufley’s wording) because of the pressing nature of the governor’s question. Namely: Does LePage have to enforce the laws in question, or must the Legislature consider his veto attempts first?

The court’s opinions are usually released on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the court is normally in recess for most of August. That, combined with the expedited schedule, has many hopeful the court’s advisory opinion will be released today. Keep checking for updates. — Mario Moretto, BDN.

Angus King announces he’ll support Obama’s Iran nuclear deal

In a speech delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Wednesday afternoon, Maine’s junior senator said he’d back the president when the proposed nuclear treaty with Iran comes up for a vote.

The deal, hammered out by President Barack Obama’s administration and leaders in Tehran, lifts many of the economic sanctions imposed against Iran in exchange for concessions aimed at limiting that country’s nuclear program. The goal, Obama says, is to prevent Iran from creating a nuclear weapon.

The deal was hammered out by the U.S. and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom), along with Germany. It also has the backing of the European Union.

Many Republicans, along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, oppose the deal, saying it will only delay Iran’s nuclear capability, not prevent it.

In his speech (video available here), U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said the deal is the best option on the table.

“There is no certainty when it comes to this question. There are risks in either direction, and credible arguments can be made on both sides. But in the end, I have concluded that the terms of this agreement are preferable to the alternatives and that it would be in the best interest of the United States to join our partners in approving it,” King said. “We owe the American people our best judgment, and it is my belief that this agreement, if implemented effectively and in conjunction with the other measures we must take to strengthen its implementation, will serve our nation, the region, and the world.”

King, who was lobbied hard by both sides of the debate, said he would continue to be “deeply engaged” in the Iran-nuclear issue. — Mario Moretto, BDN.

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Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House. Mario left the BDN in 2015.