Legislative leaders making progress in crafting package to fight drug crisis
AUGUSTA — Leaders from both parties in the Legislature met Friday with officials from the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Health and Human Services to coordinate efforts to solve Maine’s drug epidemic.
“It’s encouraging to see lawmakers from both parties, in the House and Senate, come together to end the drug crisis in our state,” said Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond of Portland.
Addressing the drug addiction epidemic is a top priority for lawmakers in the upcoming session. Legislative leaders from both parties advanced five bills Thursday as part of a comprehensive effort to tackle the problem. Those bills focused on education, treatment and law enforcement, and will form the backbone of the Legislature’s efforts.
Meanwhile, Gov. Paul LePage, who did not attend the meeting Thursday, has demanded an incomplete approach to the emergency that focuses solely on law enforcement — a strategy experts say is woefully inadequate to addressing the problem.
During the meeting with his top officials, there was little indication that his position had changed.
“No one disputes the need for a strong law enforcement approach. But we can put every bad guy bent on selling poison to our citizens in jail and they’ll just be replaced by more drug dealers,” Sen. Alfond said. “That’s why any plan that stands a chance in the Legislature will feature a comprehensive approach for solving this problem.”
Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate passed a bipartisan budget that provided funding for the LePage administration to hire additional MDEA agents, drug court judges and special prosecutors to handle drug crimes. So far, those positions remain unfilled.
From 2011 to 2014, Maine saw a 340 percent increase in the number of illicit drug overdose deaths, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, leading to a record-breaking death toll in 2014, when 208 lost their lives.
2015 is on pace to match or meet that record; In the first half of this year, 105 people in Maine have died from drug overdose. Of those, more than half were caused by heroin or fentanyl, a narcotic that’s 40 or 50 times stronger than pure heroin.