It happened first at the news conference in front of the duck pond that had been drained to search for a gun used in a shooting.

“Janet Mills is using taxpayer money to send people to places where they can get free crack pipes,” former Gov. Paul LePage told the assembled members of the press in Portland. “This is outrageous. For most Mainers, this is insane.”

He leveled the same charge during the gubernatorial debate that took place in Lewiston last week, saying they were being given out “through a federal program.” One of the latest attack ads on Gov. Mills by the LePage campaign again accuses the sitting governor of “handing out crack pipes.”

Unfortunately for LePage, no amount of repetition will make this come true. The substance abuse arm of the U.S Department of Health and Human Services does not distribute what he calls “crack pipes.”

Where pipes used to smoke certain drugs are being provided, it’s by a number of nonprofit harm-reduction groups, publicly and privately funded, in a bid to protect people from the danger posed by injection.

And the LePage narrative may be even more insidious than meets the eye.


As observed in a Harm Reduction Journal study published earlier this year, “crack” is a word “loaded with unfortunate connotations of stigma and discrimination” and “driven by media depictions of an urban public health crisis primarily affecting Black communities.”

It suits LePage to promote a vision of drug-ravaged inner cities and ignore the reality of rural towns in deep distress. Across the country and nationally, the use of “crack pipe” at best appeals to the villainizing thinking of the 1980s war on drugs. At worst, it perpetuates a racist trope.

The former governor isn’t singing from a new hymn sheet. In fact, the substance abuse positions of “LePage 1.0” in eight years as governor were far more unconcerned in their racism and directly accused of inflaming tensions. If LePage is taking far more care today, he’s still not taking nearly enough.

Any use of “crack pipe” to telegraph a skewed message on the opioid epidemic is also irresponsible – last year, 93 percent of overdose victims in Maine were white people.

By again and again using “crack pipe” as a shorthand, the LePage campaign continues to sidestep facts that hit a little closer to home in Maine: opioids – fentanyl, in particular – by far more dangerous and overwhelmingly the leading cause of death by overdose across our state.

And not just in our state, but around the country, where the opioid epidemic is killing people and confounding authorities in areas that are politically blue, red and everything in between.


By attempting to deflect from the true nature of the opioid epidemic, LePage may also hope to deflect attention from his hand in worsening the sickening toll it has taken on Maine. Crack cocaine overdoses cannot be helped by administering naloxone, the overdose antidote that LePage blocked at every turn while in office. Last year, the number overdoses reversed by naloxone in Maine – and lives saved – was 2,075.

For people like Courtney Gary-Allen, the director of the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project who is herself in recovery, LePage’s sustained rhetoric against harm-reduction strategies is a source of grave disappointment.

“(LePage) has not changed and he does not care about my community,” Gary-Allen told Maine Public. “He does not care whether or not my friends are dying on the streets. He’s using them as backdrops to his press conferences so that he can get hits in the media.”

Correction (Oct. 19, 2022): Because of an editing error, a previous version of this editorial misstated the total number of overdoses reversed by naloxone in Maine last year, which was 2,075.

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