More than New Hampshire separates Maine from its New England neighbor Vermont. The governors of both states are speaking out about and proposing responses to a serious and growing issue in both states: increased heroin misuse and deaths from overdose.
Yet their approaches could not be more different: Vermont Gov. Pete Shumlin is exploring health-based, forward-looking solutions to what is fundamentally a health problem, while Maine Gov. Paul LePage seems stuck in the last century, offering up more of the same drug-warrior responses that have proved a costly failure over the last 40 years.
Overdose is a serious and growing problem in states around the country. Overdose has surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death nationally, and this holds true in Maine and Vermont. Both states have seen an enormous increase in deaths from overdose in the past few years.
Increased heroin use is tied to the rise in use of prescription painkillers. Though the vast majority of people who take prescription painkillers never develop a dependence on them, inevitably some do. And because heroin has similar effects but is much cheaper, many of those users have made the switch. This is especially true where well-intentioned law enforcement efforts to crack down on the availability of prescription painkillers have succeeded in making these drugs harder to get. Without any interventions to reduce demand, users who have become addicted switch to the more available — and cheaper — alternative.
In Vermont, Shumlin spent his entire state of the state speech in January addressing what he called “a full-blown heroin crisis.” He noted that in 2012, twice as many people died of heroin overdose as did in 2011. He commended the police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges who work hard on “the criminal side” of drug addiction under tough circumstances. But he said, “we must bolster our approach to addiction with more common sense. We must address it as a public health crisis, providing treatment and support, rather than simply doling out punishment, claiming victory, and moving onto the next conviction.”
Shumlin backed up his call for treatment with nearly $1 million in new funding for treatment. Last year Vermont passed the most far-reaching good Samaritan bill in the country and an effective naloxone access law that has already saved lives.
In Maine, LePage also addressed the heroin problem in his state of the state address and pointed out that “four times as many people died from a heroin overdose in 2012 than in 2011.” But he still, literally, used the language and approach of the “war on drugs.” He proposed no additional treatment resources; in fact, as governor he has cut funding for drug treatment. Instead, he proposed more funding for drug enforcement agents, prosecutors and judges. Last year he vetoed a watered-down good Samaritan bill, and has opposed a naloxone bill this legislative session.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared the “war on drugs.” Over the course of that war, over a trillion dollars was spent on get-tough approaches to the drug problem. And 43 years later, what do we have to show for it? A massive prison system that contains almost 25 percent of all the prisoners in the world, even though the United States has only about 5 percent of the world’s population. Local police forces that are increasingly militarized, with high-tech war-making equipment that would be the envy of army generals in many countries. Untold opportunity costs, in money not spent on schools, health and infrastructure to benefit the people of our country.
All this might have been worth it if we had won the war on drugs. But today drugs are cheaper and more available than ever, and there are more varieties of them. Which has led 82 percent of Americans, according to a 2012 Rasmussen poll, to say that the war on drugs is a failure. But LePage seems not to have gotten the memo.
In his address, LePage said, “We cannot return to the same failed policies of the past 40 years. We must be bold. We must have the courage to make the tough decisions. We can do better. We will do better.” Sadly, the governor was not referring to the drug war, but to “higher taxes and bloated government.”
The former U.S. drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, himself a former police chief, recently traveled to Vermont and praised its approach to the heroin problem, calling it a “blueprint” for the country. Let’s hope more states follow the lead of Vermont and that Maine reverses course and moves toward a health-based approach to this serious problem.
Jill Harris is managing director of strategic initiatives for the Drug Policy Alliance. She also spent 13 years as a public defender with the Legal Aid Society in New York City, including two years as the attorney in charge of the Manhattan Criminal Defense Division, the country’s largest public defender office. She is a graduate of Harvard and NYU Law.