CANDIDATES for the state Legislature participate in a forum Thursday in Wiscasset.

CANDIDATES for the state Legislature participate in a forum Thursday in Wiscasset.

WISCASSET

Candidates for the state Legislature clashed over how to deal with Maine’s opioid crisis during a Wiscasset forum hosted by The Lincoln County News.

The event was held at the Lincoln County Regional Planning Commission building on Thursday, and was the first of two scheduled candidate forums moderated by Lincoln County News editor J.W. Oliver. Nine candidates for state Senate and House races attended, hailing from districts covering Sagadahoc County and parts of Lincoln County.

Rep. Jeffrey Pierce, R-Dresden, focused on the opioid crisis in his opening remarks, insisting that Maine enact “severe penalties” on those bringing opioids into the state.

“The biggest thing that the state of Maine is going to have to deal with in the 128th Legislature is our opiate addiction. We have a huge drug crisis in this state,” said Pierce. “We’ve had a lot, an incredible amount of overdoses just in my district. We need to clamp down on interstate trafficking of opioids, fentanyl. And this can only be done with severe penalties to people bringing them across the border. We need to send a message: don’t bring this to our state.”

When pressed by Oliver on what appropriate penalties would look like, Pierce later clarified that interstate drug traffickers with a prior felony conviction should be given a mandatory 20 years in prison with no possibility of parole, while those with no prior felony convictions should receive a mandatory 10-year sentence with no possibility of parole. He argued that severe penalties give authorities the leverage to go after drug traffickers higher up the supply chain.

Rep. Jeffery Hanley, R-Pittston, took punishments a step further, suggesting that the death penalty might be an appropriate punishment — although he admitted that it was unlikely the Legislature would go in that direction.

“Well, if you want to be really brutal about it, they’re selling death to our children. I mean, the death penalty would work really well — they’ll never sell it again,” said Hanley.

He emphasized that sentences for those caught selling drugs should be so steep that “by the time they get out they’ll be too old to carry their bags around.” He also insisted that addicts be forced into treatment.

Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, added that she advocated for harsher penalties for those convicted of trafficking drugs in-state. While she acknowledged that drugs being imported is a major problem, she pointed out that prosecutors have a difficult time proving that drugs came from across the border, so most of the interstate drug traffickers caught are charged with the lesser crime of drug trafficking, not interstate drug trafficking.

“If you’re in Lincoln County, the prosecutor is going to have a hard time proving that drug came from across the line,” said Fowle.

“Another major factor leading to this drug abuse in our state is the use of EBT cards at ATMs to get cash,” said Guy Lebida, who is running for Senate District 23, which covers all of Sagadahoc County as well as Dresden.

“I think welfare reform is key to this issue, I really do. I think generational welfare has led partially to this problem. We’ve lost our work ethic in this state, and probably nationwide. It’s too easy just to be dependent,” said Lebida.

Fowle pushed back on that characterization.

“I have a hard time believing, or even saying or hearing, that this is a welfare problem,” said Fowle. “Yes, there are people that are on welfare who do drugs, but I’ll tell you what, 80 percent of the people that are addicted to drugs right now could have been somebody’s sister who had a car accident and got addicted to medication, or some kid who played soccer and got injured and had surgery and got addicted to drugs.”

Eloise Vitelli, a Democrat from Arrowsic, Lebida’s opponent in Senate District 23, pointed to pharmaceutical companies as sharing the blame for the current crisis. While powerful painkillers have some appropriate uses, she admitted, she praised the Legislature for a recent bill which limited the dosage of opioids doctors could prescribe.

“I think the drug companies themselves need to be held accountable for how they’ve developed the drugs, how they promote them, market them, and how they then get regulated,” said Vitelli.

Increased drug education was a suggestion made by several individuals, as was increased treatment — especially for nonviolent offenders. One way to tackle the opioid crisis head on and increase treatment, said Wendy Wolf, an independent from Boothbay, is Medicaid expansion — a sentiment mirrored by Democrat Will Neilson of Arrowsic.

“One thing the Legislature can do is restore Medicaid to those individuals who have lost their Medicaid coverage.

Because one reason that people cannot get into treatment is that they are uninsured and don’t have any way to pay for treatment,” said Wolf.

While the lion-share of the conversation centered on the opioid crisis, candidates also discussed the merits of Medicaid and solar power.

A second candidate forum hosted by The Lincoln County News featuring the other candidates from Lincoln County will be held on Thursday, Oct. 13 at the Skidompha Public Library’s Porter Auditorium in Damariscotta.

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