Fighting drug abuse is like economics: It’s all about supply and demand.

You can work with pharmaceutical manufacturers and the doctors who write prescriptions for addictive pain medication in ways to make the drugs harder to abuse and harder for addicts to get. But then you will soon find what officials in Vermont recently announced.

Lowering the supply of prescription drugs has just increased the use of illegal drugs, particularly heroin. The same thing has been happening in Maine, where state officials say opiate addiction is increasing even as successful steps have been employed against prescription drug abuse.

This is the danger of treating drug abuse as strictly a law enforcement problem and not treating it as what it is: a public health problem.

In addition to reducing supply, a successful drug abuse strategy also attacks demand. That means investing in treatment.

Unfortunately, that’s not the direction Maine is going. At the end of the year, the state will impose two-year caps for treatment with methadone and buprenorphine, the two most effective drugs for treating opiate addiction. The two-year cap begins on Jan. 1, and could continue beyond the 24-month limit if certain criteria are met.

The state’s Office of Drug Abuse will be putting an effort on prevention, which is crucial to a successful campaign. But cutting back supply will just make the people already addicted more resourceful.

It is the wrong way to save money, and shows that the state is still thinking about drug abuse as primarily a law enforcement problem. Opiate addiction is a lifelong problem, and relapses are common. Some people stay on maintenance programs far longer than two years, and are able to live productive lives as a result. Not everybody succeeds, but at least when they are in treatment, addicts commit fewer crimes and don’t boost demand for black market drugs.

A supply-side approach to attacking drug abuse makes sense only if there is a strong demand-side strategy at the same time.

When the new Legislature convenes, it should consider whether it really wants to impose cuts on treatment when drug addiction is on the rise.


Correction: This story was revised at 12:27 p.m., Nov. 29, 2012, to state that a new two-year cap on methadone or buprenorphine treatments for addicts begins on Jan. 1, and could continue beyond the 24-month limit if certain criteria are met.