A fool’s errand: LePage’s enforcement-centric war on drugs

Governor Paul LePage waves as he leaves the House of Representatives chamber after he delivered his 2014 State of the State address at the State House in Augusta on Feb. 4, 2014.
Governor Paul LePage waves as he leaves the House of Representatives chamber after he delivered his 2014 State of the State address at the State House in Augusta on Feb. 4, 2014. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 13, 2014, at 12:02 p.m.

Fourteen additional Drug Enforcement Agency agents, four new drug prosecutors, four new drug court judges. This is Gov. Paul LePage’s response to the $1.4 billion drug problem in the state of Maine. As the saying goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

Since 2000, the costs of substance abuse in Maine have more than doubled. Penobscot County’s share of these costs in 2010 was over $160 million. That is 77 percent greater than Bangor’s municipal and school budget combined. Keep in mind these are annual costs; we get to bear these costs each and every year. What is so terribly wrong with this picture?

Increased enforcement is designed to reduce the supply of alcohol and drugs. Yet coffee brandy is sold next to ice cream; prescription drug addiction is epidemic; marijuana, itself another substance that can lead to dependency, is on the verge of legalization; designer drugs are developed faster than they can write laws to outlaw them. Eighty percent of the prison population is there because of drug-related offenses. So far we haven’t done incredibly well on reducing supply.

What about the other side of supply and demand? What about “demand reduction”? In the same state report cited by LePage, the total amount invested in substance abuse prevention, treatment and recovery equaled just 3.3 percent of these total costs.

The state Office for Substance Abuse cites studies that show for every $1 invested in treatment, there is $7 in cost offsets and avoidance in other services. LePage’s study is a perfect example of a skewed “under-funded demand reduction” policy that favors law enforcement and punishment disproportionately over treatment and recovery.

Doesn’t it make more sense to balance policy with a system that shows proven cost reduction? Studies of the recovery community show emergency room use and criminal justice activity decreases 10-fold in recovery, while employment, education, family and civic involvement increase dramatically. Demand reduction works and pays excellent dividends.

In his proposal to combat substance abuse, the governor fails to mention he is restricting access to treatment, creating backlogs that warehouse individuals seeking treatment in jails, hospitals or on the street.

At Wellspring, a substance abuse treatment agency serving the Bangor area and the state since 1968, there are 35 individuals on the waiting list at the Men’s House alone with no way to fill empty beds. Waging a war on drugs without improving access to treatment is a fool’s errand.

If an addict denied treatment commits a crime, our system immediately commits tens of thousands of dollars in criminal justice resources that fail to achieve any lasting benefit.

Stigma, judgment and shame twist our ability to view this problem in a balanced way. Public safety? Absolutely. Accountability? Absolutely. Simply punishment? Without prevention, treatment and recovery support, we can expect these costs to double again over the next decade. LePage’s proposed multi-million-dollar prison will be filled before it is even finished.

On one point I agree with the governor. We all have to work together. Public safety is one step, treatment is another, but recovery happens in the community. We all have a stake in this. Let’s not do the same thing over again.

Bruce Campbell is clinical director of Wellspring, chairman of the Substance Abuse Task Force for the Greater Bangor Public Health Advisory Board, and on the board of directors for the Bangor Area Recovery Network.

 

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