AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage says he is considering calling in the Maine National Guard to combat the state’s drug epidemic.
The governor told Bangor radio station WVOM on Tuesday that he’ll deploy the guard if “the Legislature refuses to give us the resources we need.”
He has repeatedly asked lawmakers to include money in the state budget for hiring additional agents at the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. The Legislature approved funding to add six MDEA agents, two state prosecutors and two judges for additional arrests and court cases this year, but LePage has said he wants more. He called the funding “chump change” during an interview with WVOM’s George Hale and Ric Tyler.
It’s unclear how the governor would utilize the Maine National Guard. A federal law known as the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 limits how the federal government can use military personnel to enforce domestic laws. However, National Guard forces operating under state authority can be exempted from the act’s restrictions and could be used in some capacity as part of the state’s response to a drug problem.
The administration did not respond to a request for additional details on the governor’s plan. In the radio interview, LePage said only that his office was exploring the legal limits of using the guard.
“I am going to use the executive branch, and if need be, as commander in chief, I have access to the National Guard,” he said. “If the Legislature refuses to give us the resources we need, and if we can’t develop a comprehensive plan with existing resources, I will use the National Guard.”
Tyler asked the governor to confirm that he would use the guard.
“If necessary, that is correct,” LePage replied.
GUARDSMEN ALREADY ON DRUG TASK FORCES
Maine National Guard spokesman Norm Stickney didn’t respond to email and voicemail messages seeking comment on Tuesday night.
The governor made similar comments last week in an interview with the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, and MDEA Director Roy McKinney told MPBN that four guardsmen are already assigned to drug task forces as intelligence analysts. McKinney also said that the guard has previously provided members to help with investigations, and in efforts to find and destroy illegal marijuana growing operations.
LePage also made other comments Tuesday about the drug epidemic that has received significant media attention after 14 drug overdoses in Portland over the course of 24 hours starting on July 31, resulting in two deaths. That surge could become a watershed moment during an epidemic that has repeatedly surfaced over the past several years.
The number of Mainers seeking treatment for heroin addiction increased from 1,115 in 2010 to 3,463 last year, and the number of heroin overdose deaths climbed from seven in 2011 to 57 in 2014. Those statistics reflect the national trends prompted by increased availability of the low-cost street drug at a time when prescription opiate painkillers are becoming harder to find and more expensive to buy. Many users become addicted to painkillers first, then turn to lower-cost heroin.
Portland police fear that the sudden spike in overdoses may have been caused by a “bad batch” of heroin that was either of unusually high purity or had been laced with the even-deadlier prescription opiate fentanyl.
LePage has taken the position that the penalties for drug traffickers aren’t stiff enough, saying Tuesday, “We’re soft on crime and we’re soft on penalties.” However, LePage actually tried to veto two bills passed by the Legislature that would have beefed up drug penalties.
One of the bills outlaws the designer drug acetyl fentanyl and its derivatives, which have been used to increase the potency of heroin by up to 50 times its original strength. The bill was submitted at the request of the MDEA. The second bill increases the fine for the unlawful possession of fentanyl from a misdemeanor to a felony.
The bills became law despite LePage’s intended vetoes, after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the governor missed a 10-day constitutional deadline for action and erred when he attempted to veto these and 63 other bills.
LePage announced last week that he will convene a summit of law enforcement, treatment providers and other experts to develop a response to the drug problem. His office has yet to announce any additional details on the summit.
MORE ENFORCEMENT, FAILED TREATMENT
The governor has seized the opportunity provided by the spike in Portland overdoses to repeat his call for more MDEA agents, a proposal he’s been pushing since last year. LePage’s demand for more agents comes as treatment providers are questioning statements made by officials at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services that the state has a surplus of treatment funding.
DHHS officials have neither provided specifics about the amount of the surplus, nor reconciled conflicting statements in which a DHHS spokesman said that the unused funds are given to providers at the end of the year, after originally saying that the money is diverted to the state’s General Fund.
LePage made reference to the excess treatment funds Tuesday, saying, “there’s always more money.”
“In some cases the federal government will put strings on the money that’s impossible to meet,” he said. “Yes, there’s more, and yes, there’s money left over at the end of last year.”
The governor also criticized Democrats for pursuing more treatment funding while not completely fulfilling his request for enforcement money.
“If I didn’t know better, if I was a real cynic, I’d think that the Democrats like drug dealers,” he said, before adding that the perfect place to put drug traffickers was in the “super-max,” a reference to the maximum-security unit within the Maine State Prison.
“The drug traffickers … are murderers and murderers should all be together,” he said.
LePage also made reference to a DHHS statement that only 36 percent of those entering state-funded treatment programs complete them. In some areas, DHHS spokesman David Sorensen told the Press Herald last week, the number is as low as 15 percent.
“That’s a horrible number,” LePage said. “That’s because we don’t hold people responsible for their actions.”
A FOCUS ON TRAFFICKERS, NOT ADDICTION
DHHS has not provided additional information about the program completion statistic. However, the figures echo a theme in administration statements that the state is funding treatment programs, but there are some people who just don’t want the help. The governor has said this explicitly, telling reporters during a May 29 news conference that “I’m looking to go after the traffickers. I don’t care about the users. We’ll get them in clinical therapy and that can be dealt with – if they chose to.”
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which distributes grant funding to states’ mental health and substance abuse programs, compiles reports from state agencies about discharge and treatment-completion rates. It discourages state-to-state comparisons, in part because reporting methods and accuracy vary widely.
In 2011, in what appears to be the agency’s most recent national data set on treatment and discharges, there was a 12 percent completion rate nationally among the 75,238 discharges from outpatient medication-assisted opioid therapy (mostly methadone). Forty percent dropped out of therapy, 22 percent transferred to another provider, 11 percent had treatment terminated by the provider, and 15 percent were discharged for another reason. Factors that affect completion rates include frequency of opioid use before entering treatment, age, employment and education level.