March 12

With drug crackdown, LePage favoring enforcement over treatment

The governor wants beefed-up policing but remains silent on prevention and treatment spending in his State of the State speech.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Gov. Paul LePage hit many familiar notes during his State of the State speech Tuesday, but he surprised some listeners by devoting a significant portion of it to Maine’s growing heroin problem and calling for an escalation of the state’s “war on drugs.”

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Gov. Paul LePage says that “we must hunt down dealers and ... protect our citizens from drug-related crimes.”

Joel Page/The Associated Press

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The governor’s emphasis on arresting and prosecuting drug offenders sets him apart from mainstream trends in public policy, which have begun to tilt toward addiction intervention and treatment as a more effective response.

LePage framed his call for a more aggressive war on drugs with statistics, noting that heroin overdoses in Maine quadrupled from 2011 to 2012, and that 927 drug-addicted babies were born in Maine last year at an average extra cost of $53,000 per birth – paid for largely by publicly funded programs.

During his three years as governor, LePage has proposed or made significant cuts in the funding that supports drug intervention and treatment programs, especially for opiate addiction treatment under MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

In the budget that he submitted to the Legislature in 2011, LePage sought to cut $4.4 million from the program that funds substance abuse treatment. In subsequent negotiations, he offered to cut the reduction in half, but the Legislature finally refused to eliminate any of the funding.

Last month, the state imposed a two-year limit on MaineCare payments to people who are being treated for opiate addiction with suboxone and methadone, with certain exceptions. About 12,000 Mainers had suboxone prescriptions in 2010, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services, and many of them were MaineCare recipients.

Earlier this year, 19,000 Medicaid recipients classified as “childless adults” were removed from the program, including hundreds of beneficiaries who used the health care for methadone to treat heroin addiction. The cut was proposed by LePage, who has often said that able-bodied adults should go without state assistance.

The DHHS estimated that the state would save $22 million by cutting the coverage, but the estimate has been disputed by drug treatment and poverty advocates.

LePage said he wants to fully fund the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, adding 14 positions. Based on the most recent salary data for the agency, hiring another 14 agents would cost about $1 million. That’s in addition to LePage’s plan to provide an additional $700,000 in funding for the agency, and to hire four new prosecutors and four new judges for enhanced drug courts.

All told, the governor’s plan could cost close to $3 million, according to estimates provided by the staff for House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick.

Democrats were glad that the governor raised the issue in his State of the State address, but several were concerned that he was pushing an enforcement-specific approach.

Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, who served on the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and is now the assistant Senate majority leader, quickly noted that she didn’t hear a lot about treatment and prevention in LePage’s speech.

“We can’t arrest our way out of Maine’s drug problem,” she said. “Law enforcement cannot do this alone; we need to address addiction by treating it as the disease it is or Maine will continue to lose.”

LePage’s approach contrasts with that of Vermont’s Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. Shumlin – who also is chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, which has criticized LePage regularly – used his entire State of the State Message to address that state’s heroin epidemic.

During his 34-minute speech, Shumlin urged lawmakers to devote more money to treatment and programs. According to a copy of his speech, Shumlin said it costs Vermont more than $1,100 a week to imprison drug offenders, while weekly treatment costs $123.

(Continued on page 2)

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