Mills, LePage debate drug policies during first gubernatorial debate

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substance abuse, addiction, people and drug use concept - close up of addict woman and used syringes on ground

Maine’s Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and former Republican Gov. Paul LePage defended their differing policies for addressing the opioid epidemic during Tuesday’s gubernatorial debate at the Franco Center in Lewiston.

Mills defended her administration’s focus harm reduction despite Maine’s overdose rate continuing to rise during her first term in office. In 2020, 504 Maine residents died from overdoses of both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical drugs, according to the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine.

That number rose to 627 in 2021. As of June 2022, the number of fatal overdoses in Maine was 9.7 percent higher than at the same time during 2021. 

Mills blamed fentanyl for the increase in overdoses and deaths from overdoses, noting that the Maine Department of Public Safety (DPS) has recovered 82 pounds of fentanyl over the past two years.

MIlls also touted her administration’s effort to promote the distribution of naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan, which reverses the effects of opioids and can prevent overdoses if administered in time, and other harm reduction efforts her administration has promoted, such as increasing the number of recovery coaches available to individuals struggling with addiction.

LePage was asked whether he believed his preferred drug control policy, which favors law enforcement, would work better than Mills’ approach. The moderators noted the overdose rate was still high during LePage’s time in office.

LePage said he believes law enforcement is the right tool to deal with drug overdoses and addiction and repeated earlier comments critical of Narcan distribution.

LePage also repeated allegations that a federal program to distribute safe drug kits is distributing crack pipes. In December 2021, The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, announced a harm reduction grant program that would “help increase access to a range of community harm reduction services and support harm reduction service providers as they work to help prevent overdose deaths and reduce health risks often associated with drug use.” 

Under the terms of the grant program, harm production providers are asked to develop or expand evidence-based programs, which may include the provision of sterile syringes and overdose prevention kits. 

The federal program does not provide crack pipes as part of safe drug kits. Allegations that harm reduction centers in Maine, including the Church of Safe Injection and Maine Access Points, slated to receive funding through the federal grant program, were made in an article published in August by the Washington Free Beacon.

Zoe Brokos, executive director of the Church of Safe Injection confirmed her organization does include clean pipes in its safe drug kits upon request, but noted they do not use either federal or state funds to pay for them.

“At our organization, we do distribute clean pipes to participants who request them as we believe they are a necessary part of an evidence-based harm reduction regime. The act of smoking can cause cuts or sores on the lips, and when safe smoking equipment is hard to find, people are forced to share equipment, leading to an increased risk of transmission of infectious diseases such as HIV, Hep A, and Hep C. The health economics of harm reduction are well-established: a $0.25 crack pipe is significantly more cost effective for our healthcare system than the likely alternative, which is a thousands-of-dollars (or in the case of HIV, hundreds-of-thousands) emergency room bill for treatment. More importantly, the harm reduction strategy here is not only cost-effective, it prevents the spread of illness, and keeps individuals and communities safer. ” Brokos said.

Brokos also added that all the group’s safe smoking equipment is paid for through private donations “and other private sources of funding that permit such expenditures. “

[RELATED: Medicaid Expansion will not end Maine’s opioid epidemic…]

Debate moderator Steve Mistler from Maine Public Broadcasting noted LePage has criticized expanding access to Narcan, which they characterized as having a sole purpose to sustain life.

LePage stated they only do this “until the next overdose” and that if an individual is repeatedly administered Narcan to combat an overdose, the drug will “miss eventually.” LePage advocated for a detoxification center, which he said would improve the use of Narcan.

He also advocated for a program that would expunge an individual’s criminal record if they maintained sobriety for a year.

During the debate, LePage referenced a governor’s bill passed in 2016, which he claimed proposed a correctional facility in Windham that would have added 100 beds for detoxification of patients struggling with addiction, as well as 100 beds for individuals to treat individuals with mental illness.

LePage alleged Mills got rid of the bill and instead built dining rooms, gyms, and libraries. 

LD 1447, which LePage signed on April 14, 2016, allowed the Maine Governmental Facilities Authority, to issue securities of an amount not to exceed just under $150 million at any one time “to pay for capital construction, repairs and improvements to the Maine Correctional Center in South Windham and a facility owned by the Department of Corrections in Washington County.”

Joseph Fitzpatrick, then the Department of Corrections (DOC) commissioner, testified in favor of the bill at its public hearing, noting it would provide additional substance abuse treatment beds, additional treatment for sex offenders, and an assisted living pod for older inmates. 

Construction on the Maine Correctional Center (MCC) in Windham, funded by LD 1447, has been ongoing since 2018 and is “nearing full completion” according to a spokesperson for the DOC. New construction on the facility is complete and includes a “large new living unit and programming building.”

The MCC, a medium and minimum security facility that serves as the primary reception center for DOC’s adult population, has capacity for 630 residents.

Asked how many beds the facility has for the treatment of mental health and substance abuse, DOC Director of Government Affairs and Spokeswoman Anna Black gave the following statement:

“The Maine Department of Corrections operates under the principal of humanization, with emphasis on de-stigmatization, respect, and modernization of the department. Above all, staff work to ensure residents see few barriers as they meaningfully engage with rehabilitative focused services. Therefore, all residents of the MDOC, including those at MCC, who meet medical criteria are able to receive treatment for substance use disorder.”

Also mentioned during the debate was LD 1675, which amended the definition of drug trafficking in Maine’s laws. The bill removed several definitions, including those which defined trafficking as possessing 2 or more grams or 90 individual bags of heroin and possessing 2 or more grams of fentanyl powder or 90 individual bags.

The bill also altered the definition of furnishing heroin and fentanyl and the definition of possession with the intent to traffick a drug.

Under the changes to state law made by LD 1675, proof that a person possesses four or more grams of fentanyl powder or heroin “give rise to a permissible inference under the Maine Rules of Evidence, Rule 303 that the person is unlawfully trafficking in scheduled drugs.” 

The law additionally created a permissible inference of furnishing drugs for a person who possesses two or more grams of heroin or fentanyl powder.

LD 1675 went into effect without Mills’ signature on July 1, 2021.

During the debate, LePage alleged Mills had allowed the bill, which he characterized as allowing 2,000 lethal doses of fentanyl to no longer be trafficking, to move forward. He criticized her signing of the bill as proof of the failure of her administration’s drug policies.

This post has been updated.

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