AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage and the state’s public safety commissioner will meet Friday with law enforcement officials from around the state to talk about Maine’s growing drug abuse problem.
The events, which the administration has dubbed “Drug Crime and Awareness Summits,” will take place in Westbrook and Auburn. The meetings are closed to the public and media, but LePage and John Morris, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, will answer questions after each summit.
LePage’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, said Thursday that the governor is going into the meetings without any particular action plan in mind, but is looking to “see if there’s anything the state can do to help.”
“We know there are problems, we know prescription drug abuse is very real in Maine,” she said.
Said LePage in a statement: “The personal and economic costs associated with drug and alcohol abuse are significant. I am focused on discussing and working with local law enforcement to maintain the safety of our state. If there is something we can do at the state level, we need to take action.”
In 2010, the total estimated cost of substance abuse in Maine was more than $1.4 billion, or more than $1,000 for every Maine resident, according to a statement from LePage’s office. It also said that in 2012, 779 babies were born drug-affected, and it expected this number will climb in 2013.
The Maine Drug Enforcement Agency seized 27.5 pounds of bath salts through the first 6 months of 2012 alone and Maine is subject to ever increasing numbers of out-of-state drug trafficking organizations.
“Drug use is a significant problem in today’s society,” said Morris in the same statement. “In 2012, there were 5 drug-related homicides. It is important that the state police and the MDEA work with local law enforcement throughout the state to find out exactly what the impacts of drug crimes are to local communities. If the state can do something better to help address this problem, we want to know about it.”
Last year, Morris pinned the increasing crime rate in the state on Mainers addicted to prescription drugs.
On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine called on LePage and Morris to find health-based means to combat drug use, rather than relying on the criminal justice system and sending more Mainers to jail and prison.
The so-called War on Drugs, which began under President Richard Nixon, has led the U.S. to the highest incarceration rate in the world, the civil rights group said. By some estimates, roughly half of America’s federal prisoners are incarcerated because of drug convictions.
“We are glad the governor is taking on the issue of rising drug abuse in Maine, and we hope he will address it with the thoughtful approach it requires,” said Oamshri Amarasingham, policy counsel for the civil liberties group. “Conversations about drug policy reform must involve health professionals and harm reduction experts in addition to law enforcement.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.
An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that Gov. Paul LePage will hold summits on drug crime in Westbrook and Lewiston. The meetings will take place in Westbrook and Auburn.