It’s become a grim and frustrating annual tradition, a call-and-response exercise that says a lot about the opioid epidemic.

Each year around this time, we report that Maine yet again set a record for fatal drug overdoses in the previous year, and each time we hear from readers who say the dead had it coming.

And it’s not just those who have the privilege of staying uninformed on addiction, or the luck to be untouched by its devastation. Too many people with the ability to shape and implement policy remain committed to this misguided view of substance abuse.

Under those conditions, with deadlier and more addictive drugs in the mix, the epidemic thrives.

According to the Office of the Attorney General, 418 Mainers died by drug overdose in 2017, an 11 percent increase over 2016, which was itself a 40 percent increase over 2015. The number of deaths has now doubled since 2014, and is more than 12 times higher than it was 20 years ago.

That doesn’t count the 25,000 or so Mainers who are along with their friends and families facing the tense and terrifying struggle with drug addiction for which there is far too little help.


Why is it that, years into an epidemic everyone can see, we are still setting annual records for deaths, and still falling far short of the need for treatment? Why does legislation calling for harsher sentences and increased enforcement still outperform calls for more health care?

It’s because too many policymakers see people with addiction as weak at best and unapologetically criminal at worst. So as people started getting sick and dying in record numbers, few jumped up to help them.

As reported by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in the 10-part series “Lost,” as the heroin crisis took hold starting in 2011, state spending on substance abuse treatment actually fell.

In that time, Gov. LePage, whose cuts to Medicaid were the largest factor in that decline, pushed for more drug agents and longer prison sentences, doubling down on the failed war on drugs while fighting the use of evidence-based treatment at every turn.

The governor has also fought against the availability of the life-saving drug naloxone, which can reverse an overdose if administered in time, going so far as to wholly ignore laws passed by the Legislature.

In his final State of the State address earlier this month, LePage spoke for nearly 90 minutes, yet did not mention addiction or opioids once.


He isn’t alone in the blame. Some legislators too have stood in the way of progress, with only unambitious legislation finding enough votes while the work of two state task forces on addiction has been ignored.

We could repeat how addiction alters the brain and its relationship with willpower. We could say that people suffering from addiction deserve the same compassion and care provided to people who have health problems from smoking or a poor diet. We could say that you can take issue with individual choices while still seeking a solution for a problem affecting thousands of Mainers in the same way, regardless of their age or background.

But we doubt people who disagree have read this far, which is fine if all you want to do is leave a comment on an online news story.

However, if it is your responsibility to address the problems in this state, it is your duty to do more. It’s your duty to learn how this really works – why this epidemic continues to surge – and do something about it.

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