June 18, 2018
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LePage’s dangerous portrayal of drug addiction

Carter F. McCall | BDN
Carter F. McCall | BDN
In this March 2013 file photo, a CARA participant rests inside a cell at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility. Many CARA participants come from broken homes and traumatic childhoods, said Kennebec County corrections officer Edward Anderson.


Drug and alcohol addiction is complicated.

Sometimes addiction is passed down through genetics, though of course many people become addicted without a genetic predisposition. Environment often has something to do with it: It’s estimated 9 percent of children in the U.S. live with at least one parent who abuses alcohol or drugs, and an estimated 10 percent of Americans abuse substances.

To someone who has never been addicted, abusing substances may seem absurd. But there’s usually a reason people turn to them.

Perhaps they think drugs will cover up their awful memories. Maybe they are bored teenagers who want to fit in. (Addiction usually begins in adolescence.) Perhaps they have depression or another mental illness, or they are prescribed painkillers by a doctor and become dependent, or their father dies, as it happened to one BDN blogger.

Over time, substances change the pathways of the brain. Recovery can take a lifetime, and relapse is common. In fact, it’s estimated 64 percent of people in recovery relapse within a year. Often, people suffer silently, ashamed to ask for help. Or their addiction pushes their loved ones away.

Treatment can be complex; to be successful it must address a person’s many challenges, not just the addiction. Each person is different. The longer one lasts without a drink or a pill, however, the better the odds of sustaining the recovery.

Getting through those hard days usually requires more than medical treatment, though. It takes a long-lasting support system made up of family members and friends.

People who hit bottom don’t really recover in treatment programs. They recover in the community. And right now, they need their Maine community.

They need their state to acknowledge the steep odds they face of getting better on their own. Recovery, like addiction, is rarely clear-cut, and that reality should be reflected in policies set by Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature.

Unfortunately, many of LePage’s initiatives have cut off access to needed treatment and oversimplified the issue; his recent State of the State address didn’t call for more prevention or treatment efforts but, rather, an additional 14 Maine Drug Enforcement Agency positions.

Though he rightfully expresses dismay over the effects of drug abuse on Maine, particularly the startling increase in drug-affected babies, what will he do for those infants’ families?

Instead of leaning hard on rhetoric and the enforcement side of the state’s drug problem, he should use his position of leadership to address the complex reality faced by people suffering from addiction. He should offer hope and direction, not turn the public health disaster into another doomed “war on drugs” that aims to reduce drug supply but not demand.

As research and common sense show, without greater access to treatment and recovery programs, people find themselves funneled through the criminal justice system and back into the same situation that got themselves into jail in the first place. The cost in human capital and taxpayer resources is devastating and preventable.

In 2010, substance abuse cost the state $1.403 billion, according to a report by the state Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services. Just 3.4 percent of that cost, $47 million, went to treatment. Crime-related costs, including police and courts, were $343.4 million.

If LePage wants to have an impact, he can find it in funding treatment, prevention and programs that support parents, infants and children, not more law enforcement.

He could choose to invest in public health nursing, home visiting, preschool, counseling or recovery programs. He could take a step toward transforming and rejuvenating the state’s approach toward substance abuse and mental illness, in a way that acknowledges the science.

Instead, his administration, sometimes with help from the Legislature, has cut coverage for specific addiction treatments, eliminated insurance for low-income parents starting Jan. 1, ended assistance for some low-income families, vetoed laws to help prevent overdose deaths, shifted the cost of caring for the poor to municipalities, cut funding for high-quality child care, and spent the state’s money and time blocking compromise bills to expand Medicaid, which would help people pay for addiction treatment.

Last week, LePage may have touted a $50,000 contribution from his contingency fund to an Ellsworth addiction treatment center to rebut critics who say he isn’t focusing enough on prevention. But a single contribution can’t undo the harm caused by other policies.

It can’t undo the stigmatization and alienation created by continuing to portray addiction in a simplistic light.


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