AUGUSTA — We’ve all heard the numbers and read the heartbreaking obituaries: 208 drug overdose deaths in 2014; 272 more in 2015. In just the first six months of this year, 189 more lives have been extinguished by opiate abuse.

No community is immune. The consequences of drug death ripple outward, turning the lives of families and friends upside down, likely forever.

While drug dealers and traffickers need to be stopped in their tracks, a law enforcement focus on the supply side of the problem alone does not address the root cause of this epidemic: the crippling, destructive and all-consuming reality of addiction.

The end of the drug crisis can happen only on a personal level, one recovery at a time, and with every decision not to start using drugs in the first place. That’s why prevention and access to effective treatment are so critical to achieving a balanced drug control strategy.

We have been working with hundreds of law enforcement professionals, treatment providers and families to find solutions. We passed several laws last session to address the opiate crisis, increasing the number of drug enforcement agents, establishing a new detoxification center and expanding funding for peer support recovery programs in underserved areas of Maine.

Other measures included a bill to put more restrictions on opioid prescriptions and to increase access to naloxone to equip families with a tool to save the life of their loved one in the event of a life-threatening overdose.


It’s critical to remember that overcoming the grip of addiction is both a medical and personal experience, one that is often deeply isolating. When someone takes the step toward realizing sobriety, it is not the end of the journey, but the beginning. They need not only a path forward, but also a community process that reinforces their decision to be drug-free.

That’s where initiatives like the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, or LEAD, come into play. LEAD is an innovative approach that seeks to reduce the scope and severity of harm that results from addiction. The focus is on helping addicts take back their lives rather than putting them behind bars.

We were the lead sponsor and co-sponsor of a law to fund a LEAD program in Maine. The law establishes up to eight pilot programs in communities like ours. The goal of these projects is to divert nonviolent, low-level offenders into community-based treatment, significantly reducing pre-trial costs. This approach has resulted in measurable success where it is already being implemented in cities such as Seattle and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

A LEAD team of professionals that include police, prosecutors and health care case managers helps provide the services that recovering addicts need, including housing, job training and health care. Communities will have flexibility in how they implement the intervention efforts. They will record the progress of program participants, including recidivism rates, and share this data with the Legislature so that resources can be allocated to programs that can present evidence in support of their efforts.

According to a University of Washington study, participants in Seattle’s LEAD program were 58 percent less likely to be arrested in the long term than those who didn’t participate. Jails and courts saved $8,000 on each participant over the course of a year.

Moving ahead, the Legislature must work to ensure more rapid access to treatment beds, allocate resources to more fully develop existing state drug courts and educate our fellow citizens on the benefits and challenges of medication-assisted treatment. We must commit to do what is necessary to make it possible for recovering addicts to get their lives back on track.

Addiction is an illness. It captures body and soul so completely that very few things matter more than the next fix. The long shadow of heroin has fallen on many of our neighbors. It did not happen overnight, and our work over the weeks and months ahead will be difficult. We must commit to do this together. This crisis demands no less than the best that we can give to each other.

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