In Maine, there are thousands of addicts who receive methadone treatment to help control their addiction and to find their way back to normal lives.

If you listened to the testimony before the Committee on Health and Human Services last week, you might have walked away with tears in your eyes, as many committee members did after listening to patients, their parents and families who say methadone has been the only treatment that works for their loved ones. Many had witnessed overdoses and watched as the person they knew spiraled downward to tragedy.

You would have heard testimony from a patient from Rockland, an area of the state with a serious opiate crisis, who admitted he was a liar, a thief and an addict who had graduated from one drug to another until heroin almost killed him. He is on methadone now and holds a job.

His mother would have told how her love could not protect him from the devastating grip of heroin and that his near-fatal overdose was one of the worst days of her life. She believes methadone saved his life. She is one of many mothers who could tell the same story.

Methadone treatment is under attack right now by the LePage administration. It’s on the budget chopping block to have a rate reduction so severe, we may soon find 4,000 methadone patients back out on the street.

If that occurs, the consequences for law enforcement and jails is deadly simple. Drug addicts without treatment are criminals driven to commit impulsive dangerous acts to satisfy their addictions.

If we reduce treatment, it’s the public who loses in terms of home invasions, pharmacy robberies, theft and other street crimes.

The price of public safety without methadone is staggering. Even if you don’t count the human suffering and family destruction, methadone treatment is cost-effective. Treating an opiate addict costs $4,000 a year on MaineCare. The price tag for a jail cell soars to $48,000 to $65,000 a year.

Opiate addiction is not a question of individual willpower. It is not a choice once you have crossed the addiction threshold. Opiates create a permanent change to the brain’s biochemistry. Methadone works because it rewrites the chemistry in the damaged areas of the brain. A patient’s desire to change is simply not enough.

A methadone plan of care allows the recovering addict to live in a productive way. It is not a crutch but a necessary medical tool.

Addiction treatment professionals also recognize that recovering patients may relapse and abuse other illicit drugs. To protect the patient and the integrity of the methadone care plan, clinicians routinely test clients for these substances.

The Legislature will be deciding whether to put a time limit on methadone treatment, a cornerstone of the budget cuts. Limits often sound like a great idea. It assumes, incorrectly, that an addict can just “decide” to stop.

First, a doctor and a patient should be making treatment decisions together. Does it make sense to say to someone who has hypertension that the medications will only be paid for a certain amount of time? Should we tell diabetics that they can have insulin for two years and then take the medicine away because of an artificial timeline created by a political committee?

Methadone care plans can follow a patient through his or her lifetime. While there are success stories of people coming off the drug and leading healthy lives, they are few and far between. An arbitrary decision to cut treatment just continues this public health crisis in Maine without the needed input of medical professionals and their patients.

Maine needs to take a true snapshot of the sobering costs of opiate addiction in this state. The 4,000 people currently in treatment, and their families, know all too well how hard and high that cost truly is. 

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, represents District 113 and previously served as Cumberland County sheriff and deputy chief of the Portland Police Department.