Will efforts to curb Maine’s drug problem devolve into a political fight?

Good morning from Augusta, where it’s slow and quiet under the dome on this fine August morning. Vast numbers of state employees are taking their vacations, judging by the parking lots around the complex, and most people have the attitude that anything that isn’t a red-flag emergency can wait. Just as it should be in the glorious finale to summertime. Here’s a bit of Janis Joplin, recorded live in 1969, to wash over you. 

A lot of the political attention over the next couple of weeks will be on drug abuse in the run-up to Gov. Paul LePage’s planned summit on the topic later this month. Law enforcement officials have been saying for the past couple of years that heroin has found Maine and Mainers have found heroin. That has led to the proliferation of a drug markets moving to Maine from points elsewhere and everything that comes with it: Crime, overdoses, ruined lives. 

Maine has long had a drug problem and when it comes to opioids, though for years the problem has centered around prescription pills. In 2014, for example, Maine and New Hampshire had the most prescriptions per person in the U.S. for long-acting, high-dosage and extended-release painkillers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. 

Shown graphically, it’s a little alarming. This Policy.Mic blog shows that across the country, the most popular illegal drug is marijuana, with some western states preferring “stimulants,” such as methamphetamine. All of the northeastern United States is bathed in orange and red, which stand for either opiates or heroin. Why is that? 

Whatever the reason, it’s an enormous problem of the sort for which there aren’t a lot of good solutions. Drug wars have been fought and lost around the world and as long as there are addicts, there will be someone to sell them their fix. 

LePage’s summit at the end of the month — his staff says a date has been chosen but it has not yet been announced — is the latest in a string of numerous brainstorming sessions that have been held in Maine over the course of decades. Will this one produce any more results than the others? We shall see. 

What we do know is that the governor is keeping the event tightly controlled. It will be invite-only, with no audience and no reporters, though LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett has offered to facilitate interviews with participants after the fact. I asked on Friday if the governor is working on legislation to propose in January and she said that though that could be part of the mix, some of the solutions don’t require legislative action and can be carried out on the front lines, at the community level. LePage even hinted in a letter to lawmakers on Friday that he could use his powers as commander in chief of the Maine National Guard to fight the problem, though he wasn’t specific about how. For more on that, check out this story from Mal Leary at Maine Public Broadcasting Network

Part of the problem moving forward is that LePage and some lawmakers disagree on whether to focus efforts on the supply side or the demand side. LePage, arguing that Maine already throws millions upon millions of dollars at treatment, wants to ramp up enforcement efforts. Most lawmakers are OK with that — as evidenced by new investigators, judges and prosecutor positions that were created and  this year — but want more money also spent on addiction treatment services. LePage has made it clear that that’s now where the state’s resources should be spent. 

Meanwhile, according to reports last week by BDN Health Editor Jackie Farwell, controversy is brewing about money LePage says is already available for treatments and not being spent, and addiction treatment providers are questioning why Maine didn’t apply for millions in federal grants. 

This all has the makings of another political battle in Augusta. Meanwhile, maybe another Mainer is trying heroin for the first time today. — Christopher Cousins 

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13th anniversary gift: laces

This marks one of the first times I have sought to personally benefit from my job as a journalist and I hope you’ll forgive me: I would like to wish my wonderful, beautiful and talented wife, Jennifer, a happy 13th wedding anniversary, though our years together far surpass that. She and I first met and started dating as members of the Oxford Hills High School band’s woodwind section in 1992.

Here’s to many more years, my love.

I was wondering what an appropriate gift is for a 13th anniversary so I went to a website called happy-anniversary.com to do some research. The answer: Lace.

Babe, I don’t know if you want leather laces or braided ones and whether they should be sized for your boots or sneakers, but it looks like a trip to Lamey Wellehan’s is in order. What color? — Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.