The court ruling means more people can treat overdoses and a harsh opioid is being banned.

Gov. Paul LePage has repeatedly railed against the Legislature for not fully adopting his request to add more officers to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. His dissatisfaction was so intense that he tried to veto a proposal to outlaw an opioid that researchers say is at least five times more potent than heroin, and up to 50 times more powerful when mixed with the deadly drug at the epicenter of the state’s burgeoning drug epidemic.

In fact, concerns over the designer opioid are so high that the proposal was supported, and requested, by the same drug enforcement agency that the governor says he’s attempting to bolster.

The proposal, which adds the designer drug acetyl fentanyl and its derivatives to the state’s list of banned drugs, is one of 65 new bills that became entangled in a dispute between LePage and the Legislature. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled Thursday that the governor erred when he asserted that he had more time to veto the bills.

The acetyl fentanyl bill was sponsored by Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, a former Maine State Police trooper who frequently submits legislation on behalf of the Department of Public Safety, the agency that oversees the MDEA. Burns said Thursday he submitted the bill on behalf of the MDEA.

ENFORCEMENT VERSUS TINKERING

In a letter to the Legislature explaining his veto, LePage wrote that he was “concerned we are tinkering with our laws that deal with illegal drugs while more and more of our citizens are being destroyed because we do not have the appropriate resources to enforce the laws on the books.”

He added, “The Legislature needs to prioritize the funding of new MDEA agents.”

Burns said he hadn’t read LePage’s veto message. When it was read to him, he said it didn’t square with LePage’s attempt to strengthen the agency.

“It’s really unfortunate that it became entangled in this morass,” he said. “I don’t know a lot about (acetyl fentanyl), but the MDEA said it was important and I trust their judgment. I’d submit the same bill again if I had to.”

Roy McKinney, director of the MDEA, did not respond to a request for comment. However, in written testimony submitted during an April 17 public hearing on the bill, he said banning the designer drug would help to combat the state’s heroin epidemic. The heroin problem is drawing widespread media attention after a Portland Press Herald report on 14 overdoses in 24 hours late last week in Portland, resulting in two deaths.

The governor announced Wednesday that he would gather top law enforcement officials and drug treatment advocates at a summit later this month. In his announcement, LePage again urged the Legislature to provide funding for additional MDEA agents, beyond the four additional agents funded in a bill passed by lawmakers.

COMBATING ACETYL FENTANYL

The dangers of acetyl fentanyl and its derivatives have put public health officials and law enforcement on high alert.

In 2013, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an alert linking the opioid to 10 of 21 deaths in a single month. The alert encouraged investigators in overdose cases to test for the drug.

Last year, Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills warned that “a fatal mix of heroin, caffeine and fentanyl, and a new admixture called acetyl fentanyl, appear to be causing users to overdose more quickly than in cases of straight heroin.”

She added, “The dangers of these chemicals cannot be underestimated or overstated.”

The 2013 CDC alert also noted that those responding to overdose victims who have taken acetyl fentanyl may have to increase doses of naloxone to revive victims. Naloxone is a drug that can reverse potentially fatal opioid overdoses.

Last year the Legislature approved a bill that allows family members and first responders to obtain prescriptions for naloxone, also known as Narcan. LePage initially rejected the bill, arguing that the drug could discourage addicts from kicking their addiction.

MORE ACCESS TO LIFESAVING DRUG

This year the Legislature passed another bill that expands access to naloxone to friends or others who would be in a position to help an addict in the event of an overdose. LePage intended to veto that bill, which was among the 65 measures at issue in the court case decided by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

“In the last year, I have been informed about drug addicts getting multiple naloxone treatments in the span of a week,” he wrote in his veto message. “Clearly, the lack of consequences for serious drug use is having the opposite effect from what is advertised.”

But the bill will become law, as the court affirmed in its decision Thursday.

In addition to that law, another bill that LePage tried to veto increases the penalty for unlawful possession of fentanyl from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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