AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage signed a $3.7 million drug-fighting bill Tuesday just hours after lawmakers unanimously endorsed the measure as a first response to an epidemic of overdoses and skyrocketing demand for addiction treatment services.

The bill includes $1.2 million to help fund 10 new positions for drug investigators in the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. MDEA is grappling with a flood of drug traffickers catering to the demand for heroin among a growing population of addicts, many of whom acquired their habits as a result of legal prescriptions for pain-killing opiates.

Another $2.5 million in the bill would target addiction treatment, including $900,000 to establish and operate a new drug detoxification center in northern or eastern Maine. Some of the treatment money also will fund projects run by jails or local police departments to help drug users connect with community-based treatment and recovery programs as an alternative to incarceration.

The $2.5 million also includes $800,000 to increase substance abuse treatment services for people who have no insurance.

The funding for the MDEA agents will supplement about $781,000 from the reserves of the state Gambling Control Board that the LePage administration tapped in early January to expedite the hiring process.

The $2.5 million in the bill going for treatment will be drawn from the Medical Uses of Marijuana Fund, which is funded by fees charged to medical marijuana dispensaries and state-licensed caregivers.

FUNDING CHANGE, UNANIMOUS VOTE

LePage, in a written statement after signing the bill, said, “I had expressed concerns about funding sources and the grant-making authority, but I thank legislative leadership for their willingness to broker changes that both the administration and the Legislature could support. To be clear, this bill is just the first step in a process that needs a much more comprehensive approach.”

The Senate voted 34-0 and the House voted 143-0 to endorse the bill, an amended version of a proposal brought forward by Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau and Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves. Final passage was in doubt after LePage initially said he might veto the measure and House Republicans objected to its proposed funding. However, House Republicans – often a bellwether for LePage’s stance on legislation – supported an amended funding mechanism during votes taken Tuesday.

Thibodeau, in his floor speech, said the bipartisan endorsement sent a message that lawmakers are serious about the drug epidemic.

“If we had failed, that would have sent a much different message,” he said.

He added, “I’m incredibly proud of this institution and each every one of you for working on this.”

Eves said in a written statement that the bill defied skeptics who doubted lawmakers could pass a “targeted, meaningful plan” to address the drug crisis.

“Today, our law enforcement, medical professionals, families, and young people trying to build a better life for themselves heard our commitment to provide the help they desperately need,” he said.

For all the bipartisan cooperation, however, the bill is not without critics, who note that the funding is a paltry commitment given the scale of Maine’s addiction problem. Others point out that the bill contains no funding to expand medication-assisted treatment using drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine, also known as Suboxone.

While there’s significant evidence that medication-assisted treatment is the most effective tool in battling addiction, the issue is contentious.

LIMITED ACCESS TO ADDICTION MEDS

The divide is not unique to Maine. A report by Stateline, the Pew Charitable Trusts’ news service, showed a number of barriers to medication-assisted treatment. Roughly two-thirds of the nation’s medical clinics do not offer addiction treatment, private insurance often doesn’t cover it, use of medication can cut treatment centers’ revenue, and the leaders of national detox and treatment programs often are recovering addicts who either beat their addiction on their own or believe that addiction drugs don’t address the underlying psychological problems that lead to addiction.

The result is that only one-fifth of the people who could benefit from addiction medication have access to it, according to a recent Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study.

Eves has said that Democrats support medication-assisted treatment, and that the current bill is the most “politically possible” legislation that could quickly pass the Legislature. He and Thibodeau have said that the current bill is a modest proposal and that other drug bills will be considered this session.

Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, acknowledged that the proposal won’t solve the drug problem, but said it’s a step forward.

“I’m glad we took this bill up right away,” he said. “It shows that we are serious about taking on this drug crisis.”

He added, “Make no mistake, we have more to do, and I hope we will do that this legislative session.”

Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, said the proposal showed that drug epidemic needed to be fought “on all fronts.”

The original bill cost $4.8 million, with $2.3 million to hire drug agents coming from the General Fund and $2.5 million for treatment programs coming from the state’s $21.5 million share of a multistate settlement with Standard & Poor’s. House Republicans objected to tapping the S&P settlement funds and proposed drawing money from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, an anti-smoking fund established with Maine’s share of a 1998 legal settlement with tobacco companies.

Democrats have vigorously fought the governor’s previous attempts to put money from the Fund for a Healthy Maine to other uses. The looming stalemate raised questions about whether lawmakers could reach an accord on the drug bill and take steps to tackle an epidemic that led to 174 overdose deaths in Maine through September, putting 2015 on track to surpass the 208 overdose deaths in 2014. There were 71 heroin overdose deaths through the first nine months of last year, eclipsing the 57 in all of 2014.

The state has yet to compile the number of overdoses for the last three months of 2015.

COMPROMISE ON FUNDING SOURCE

The amended version of the bill changes the funding source, replacing the S&P settlement dollars with money from the Medical Use of Marijuana Fund.

LePage supported the funding change after discussions with the House minority leader, Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, and Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland. Alfond said he had discussed the proposal with LePage and that those interactions “made a difference” in getting the bill passed.

Paul McCarrier, an activist in the medical marijuana caregiver community, said he was pleased that registration fees from Maine’s medical marijuana law were used to fight the state’s drug problem.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine, which opposes efforts to legalize marijuana, also approved of the funding source for the drug bill.

“Maine is experiencing a significant issue with opiates and heroin, and we know for many, their addiction didn’t start with heroin,” Scott Gagnon, the group’s director, said in a written statement. “Many young Mainers start with alcohol, tobacco, and increasingly, marijuana. It makes sense, then, that fee revenues from this program help fix the problem.”

LePage declined to elaborate on his thoughts about the drug bill during a brief interview with reporters Tuesday. He said his administration had additional plans to address the drug crisis, but he wasn’t ready to make them public.