AUGUSTA – The Maine House gave early approval Wednesday to a modified version of Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to ramp up Maine’s war on drugs.

The House voted 126-14 to approve a $2.5 million proposal to hire drug enforcement agents, state prosecutors and judges. Included in the total is $750,000 to fund drug treatment programs. The governor’s original bill had a projected cost of $3.2 million and did not include funding for treatment, an omission that drew sharp criticism from Democrats, advocates for prevention and treatment and civil libertarians.

The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee amended the bill to add the treatment funding while reducing the governor’s request for drug agents, prosecutors and judges. LePage requested 14 investigators for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, four assistant attorneys general assigned to drug prosecution and four additional judges for enhanced drug courts. The amendment, proposed by Rep. Jethro Pease, R-Morrill, cut the number of positions to 10 MDEA agents, two attorneys general and two judges.

Pease’s amendment received strong backing from Democrats, who control the Legislature.

LePage, during a news conference in Vassalboro on Wednesday, threatened to veto the proposal if it didn’t have all of the enforcement agents he originally requested.

“That’s unacceptable,” he said of the amended bill. “And this is not about politics, it’s about doing what’s right with Maine people. Let’s get the dealers off the streets.”

Democrats had called for a balanced approach that combined increased criminal enforcement with prevention and treatment, similar to legislation adopted recently in other states, including Vermont, which has a Democratic governor, and Wisconsin, which has a Republican governor.

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin signed into a law this week seven separate bills to address the state’s heroin epidemic, including proposals that give people prosecution immunity for drug possession if they call 911 to save a fellow drug user from an overdose; expanding use of Narcan, a drug given to save lives from overdoses; identification requirements for prescription drugs that can lead to heroin use; and “swift and certain” punishments for those who violate conditions for parole or probation.

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said the treatment funding in the bill, L.D. 1811, would ultimately be allocated by the state Department of Health and Human Services to current providers.

A recent report in the Maine Sunday Telegram showed that the number of Maine people seeking treatment for opiate abuse has more than doubled in the past decade, to about 4,800 in 2013. In the past three years alone, demand for treatment has increased 15 percent. The number seeking treatment for heroin abuse has doubled since 2010, to 1,820.

In 2010, Maine spent $47 million on substance abuse treatment ranging from sober-living situations such as halfway houses, to outpatient counseling, to hospitals or short-term stays in rehabilitation clinics. Last year, the amount dropped by 7 percent, to $43.7 million.

At the same time, funding for the MDEA has lagged as federal policy and dollars have shifted from the “war on drugs” to alternatives. The agency now has 40 full-time employees assigned to drug cases. It had close to 100 sworn agents and employees in 1992, when it was created by the Legislature and Republican Gov. John McKernan.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has sharply criticized LePage’s bill. The group last week urged lawmakers to defeat the compromise proposal, too.

“More drug arrests don’t lead to less demand – in fact, while drug arrests have skyrocketed, so has drug use,” said Oamshri Amarasingham, policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine, in a written statement. “The last several decades have proven that we cannot arrest ourselves out of the drug problem.”

The group said that the new proposal doesn’t go far enough to “shift the drugs paradigm from law enforcement to treatment and prevention.”

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

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