LePage: More funding necessary to fight Maine’s drug abuse epidemic

This photograph depicts the drugs police say they found during a traffic stop in August.
Wells Police Department
This photograph depicts the drugs police say they found during a traffic stop in August.
Posted Oct. 25, 2013, at 3:12 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 25, 2013, at 5:59 p.m.

WESTBROOK, Maine — Drug abuse costs $1,000 per state resident. Yet, the state’s drug problem is escalating and more money is needed to fund the law enforcement agents responsible for tackling the growing number of crimes fueled by addiction.

That was the message delivered by Gov. Paul LePage and his top law enforcement chief, who spent much of Friday meeting with police chiefs, sheriffs, Maine Drug Enforcement Agency agents and others during closed-door meetings in Westbrook and Auburn.

LePage and Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Morris said several themes emerged as they listened to law enforcement personnel describe the scene on the ground.

First, the substance abuse epidemic in Maine is responsible for a high percentage of all the crimes that occur in the state. For example, Lt. Frank Clark of the South Portland Police Department said that drug abuse played a role in at least 20 percent of all arrests in his city over the last six years.

Clark said that number is likely low, and that if police were to “scratch the surface” of each instance of crime, the figure would be even higher.

“Significantly higher,” Clark said after the meeting in Westbrook. “If someone is arrested repeatedly for robbery, we may find that the robberies were funding a drug addiction.”

According to police officials, those figures are not unusual. Morris has said in the past that drugs are the single largest cause of crime in Maine. Last year, the state saw a record 56 pharmacy robberies. The LePage administration has said that 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.

LePage and Morris also pointed out that Maine’s drug-addicted are increasingly turning to heroin rather than prescription drugs, and noted the number of drug-affected children born in the last fiscal year was 835. Morris said most of that was due to the use of methadone, a drug used to treat opiate addiction, and criticized the long-term use of the drug in clinics throughout the state.

“The methadone program should be a recovery program, not a maintenance program,” he said. “Right now, people can stay there, it seems, forever.”

LePage, who ran away from an abusive home at an early age, said the rate of drug-affected births was a chief concern for his administration.

The governor said he would work to see that infants born drug-dependent would be removed from their parents’ custody.

“That is an unacceptable behavior for a society and we can’t turn our heads anymore. We have to fix this problem,” LePage said in Auburn. “I’m all for a good, efficient safety net, but I’m not going to stand by and watch a safety net be used to addict unborn children. That’s a form of abuse and that child should be taken immediately, never to see that person again.”

One key issue is funding, LePage said, particularly for the beleaguered Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, which currently has 46 agents throughout the state. LePage said that’s not enough.

“Law enforcement is dedicated to solving the problem, but I’m not sure the state is dedicated to making the money available,” LePage said during a press conference. “We’ve got to look at where the money is, how much we have, and how we can help DEA. The last thing we want to do right now is cut back on DEA.”

MDEA Director Roy McKinney said that federal funding for his agency alone had withered by about 60 percent in recent years.

“[Federal funds] continue to be reduced, year to year. At one time, Maine was receiving on the order of just over $3 million a year. This past year, it was down to $1 million,” he said.

Morris criticized the Legislature for cutting $350,000 of MDEA funding out of LePage’s 2014-2015 budget proposal, which the governor had proposed in an effort to fill the gap created by federal revenue streams that have dwindled thanks to sequestration.

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, is the House chairwoman of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee. She said that it’s true lawmakers had cut the funding for MDEA, but only to make room for appropriations to state revenue sharing, which helps fund municipal police departments and emergency responders. LePage’s budget proposal had suspended revenue sharing entirely.

Still, Rotundo said lawmakers were dedicated to providing for Maine’s anti-drug efforts.

“The federal government has a history of funding MDEA at the last minute,” she said Friday. “We felt confident that if the federal government doesn’t come up with that money, we would be able to come back together with a supplemental budget for [fiscal year] 2015 that would fund MDEA.”

Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, described Friday’s meeting as a first-step in identifying the key problems Maine faces with regard to drug abuse, and that policy initiatives at the state level have not yet been discussed, but could be forthcoming.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Sun Journal reporter Scott Thistle contributed to this story.

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