Maine lost 418 people to drug overdoses last year, more than a 150% increase over 2010. A second epidemic hiding in the shadows is that of hepatitis C. The rate of acute hepatitis C in Maine is nearly four times that of the United States as a whole.

As a young person in recovery from intravenous drug use, I was shocked to learn that I had not contracted hepatitis C during my active addiction. Avoiding a fatal overdose and hepatitis C was only a result of luck, not because I made safer choices than any of my peers. These public health issues rest firmly on the shoulders of young adults, with over half of drug overdose deaths among people under the age of 40.

Quantifying the number of lives ruined by this crisis is difficult. So much lost human potential. The grief felt by the parents who will never see their child again. The youth branded with a felony, denied jobs, denied student loans and affordable housing. A generation of men and women lost to the opioid crisis and failed public policy.

Maine children are losing parents to a treatable disease

I recently had the opportunity to speak about the opioid epidemic to an audience of mostly 7th-grade students. The assembly was facilitated by the Be The Influence Coalition, kicking off an initiative to educate students on the opioid epidemic and actively involve them in being a part of the solution.

Windham Police Chief Kevin Schofield, who addressed the students ahead of me, pulled something small out of his pocket and asked if anyone knew what he was holding in his hand. Almost immediately, a 7th-grader identified it as naloxone, the life-saving drug that can reverse an otherwise fatal opioid overdose. Chief Schofield explained that all officers in Windham carry naloxone and that it has saved many lives in their community.

Instead of scaring a group of 12-year-olds and villainizing drug users, Chief Schofield talked about things like reducing harm and the Community Recovery Liaison Program, a partnership between local police departments that works to keep people out of handcuffs and in recovery.

When I spoke, I shared part of my experience with these young classmates and engaged with them to find out their thoughts on addiction and the opioid crisis. We talked about the reasons why people might start using drugs and explored healthier ways to deal with painful emotions or trauma. I told them about the feelings of unworthiness that I experienced at their age, and we examined some things that they can do instead of suppressing feelings with drugs and alcohol.

After I spoke, a 12-year-old boy approached me privately. He’s terrified that his parents are going to die. He said they are struggling with their recovery and he is afraid that they are using again. He also explained that when he gets anxious and scared, he goes to play basketball with his friends. I told him to keep doing that, and no matter what happens, it’s not his fault.

As someone who lost a parent to addiction, this interaction affected me deeply. Addiction affects far more than just the user, and we need to do what we can to break the cycle. No child should live in fear that their parent might die from a treatable disease.

The cost of failed substance use policy in Maine

Beyond the toll on human life, the economic costs of the opioid crisis to Maine are staggering. According to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the opioid epidemic is costing Maine the fifth-highest share of state GDP in the nation. The only states with a higher percentage of GDP are Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, and Maryland. Despite this steep economic toll, the state has not yet responded at a scale that is commensurate with the problem.

Allocated funds have not been spent. For example, in 2017, the state-funded $4.8 million for uninsured and Maine Care patients to access “innovative” “opioid health homes” and was backed by HHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew. A year later, the state has only spent $13,000 of the funds, serving only five uninsured residents. You read that correctly—five people.

Aside from the $3 million in state funds directed towards opioid health homes, only $1.775 million was set aside this past year for treatment programs, with an additional $1.23 million directed towards adding DEA agents, only furthering the failed “war on drugs.” In a time where more than one Maine person dies from overdose each day, less than $100,000 has been appropriated for increased access to naloxone, the life-saving overdose antidote.

Between 2012 and 2015, drug arrests for possession of opioids and cocaine increase by 85% throughout Maine. This increase demonstrates our continued commitment to using the criminal justice system as a tool to address substance use, in spite of the evidence showing that punitive approaches to curbing drug do not work.

LD 1783, An Act to Amend the Laws Regarding Aggravated Trafficking of Scheduled Drugs and LD 1429, An Act Regarding the Epidemic of Opiate Abuse, continue to ratchet up criminal penalties, wasting millions of dollars on a failed approach. Those same funds could be invested in ways that have a measurable and positive impact.

In 2010, Maine spent $100 million on the prison system alone, not including law enforcement, jails, the courts and other aspects of the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, the prison population has only grown. To put it plainly, we are burning money.

We need to take action immediately to save lives

The Opioid Task Force released a bipartisan report in December 2017 that urgently recommended prevention, harm reduction and treatment through legislative interventions that address the opioid crisis. The 128th Legislature has a significant opportunity to fund necessary legislation that would reduce deaths due to overdose in Maine.

LD 1707 An Act To Reduce the Cost of Care Resulting from Blood-borne Infectious Diseases that will fund syringe exchange programs in Maine. Syringe Exchange programs are a best-practice harm reduction, connecting people using opioids to clean apparatus to prevent contraction of HIV and Hepatitis C. Consistent contact with professionals will help eventually connect those same individuals to the treatment and medical care they need to find long-term recovery and stability.

LD 1711 Resolve, To Save Lives by Establishing a Homeless Opioid Users Service Engagement Pilot Project within the Department of Health and Human Services. This pilot project will provide low-barrier treatment for substance use disorders and stable housing to support recovery and create stability for 50 Maine people who use opioids and are also homeless. This intervention will prevent death and save the state money.

LD 1430 An Act to Develop a Statewide Resource and Referral Center and Develop Hub-and-spoke Models To Improve Access, Treatment and Recovery for Those with Substance Use Disorder. This bill will create a comprehensive approach to treatment access for Mainers and fund medication-assisted treatment for the uninsured.

The only way now that the 128th Legislature can get funding tackled is to extend their session with a 2/3 vote in each chamber, get 1/2 of each party in each chamber to agree to a special session, or if Governor LePage calls for a special session. Without one of these things happening, nothing will get funded, even if it passed in both bodies, nor will it become law having never gone to Governor LePage.

It’s time to stop playing politics with the lives of Maine people. Fund the recommendations of the Opioid Task Force this year—it can’t wait.

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