December 18, 2017
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Amid heroin’s devastation, a glimmer of hope of addressing it in Augusta

By Alex Steed

It was heartbreaking to read the story of David McCarthy as told in The Washington Post last weekend.

The story of the young Falmouth man whose life tragically was claimed by addiction in 2014 was shared widely on social media. I recalled hearing McCarthy’s name when he died. His obituary was noteworthy because his parents were frank and brave: They publicly acknowledged the role drugs played in his premature passing. They did so in the face of an epidemic that, it often feels, we are not addressing honestly in our communities and political discourse.

Just this week, the trend toward obituaries honest about addiction continued with the publication of Coleen Sheran Singer’s obituary in this paper. She died of an overdose at the end of last year. The obituary acknowledged addiction and pointed a finger at failed drug and public health policies and a societal failure to properly confront mental health problems.

Maine’s opioid problem is not new, unfortunately, but it is becoming deadlier.

In 2001, Spin Magazine ran an article about the growing prevalence of Oxy addiction in Maine. Since then, the crackdown on abuse of the synthetic opioid has not curbed appetites for the drug. Instead, heroin — now more widely available and cheaper — has taken the place of its prescription counterpart.

As the Post article pointed out, deaths from heroin overdoses in Maine increased from seven in 2010 to 57 last year. The vast majority of those killed by the illness of this addiction are young adults. This is an epidemic that has become all the more deadly as a disproportionate emphasis is placed on law enforcement over greater access to health services.

Gov. Paul LePage, predictably and unfortunately, hasn’t displayed the seriousness necessary for addressing the problem. He has bemoaned that babies are at risk of being born drug-dependent, which is true, though it is really young adults including Singer and McCarthy who are dying by the dozens. His response has been to call for increased law enforcement, and he has blamed political opponents for not being brave enough to step up to the problem. The administration has taken a serious, comprehensive response off the table entirely by refusing to extend even the most basic social services to those who need them and, in fact, actively rallying to restrict access to those services.

Meanwhile, the McCarthys did something courageous after losing a child to an overdose, showing that heroin addiction is not an abstract problem that affects somebody else in some other community. Singer’s family followed suit. This is a problem that plagues our towns and threatens our kids, regardless of upbringing or background.

I have joked in the past about the governor’s lack of any sense of seriousness, but in this arena people are dying because of the lack of a coherent policy. This is gravely real. I am not, though, so foolish to believe that the right amount of lobbying or imploring LePage will push him to explore and develop a nuanced or common-sense approach to the drug problem. When it came to making Narcan — a substance that reverses the effects of overdoses — more widely available to first responders, LePage moved from a totally draconian stance to a slightly less draconian stance.

Knowing it is beyond unlikely that the governor will develop a reasoned response, I challenge the Legislature, when it reconvenes, to use its newly developed solidarity to get on the same page about developing a well-researched approach to addressing this epidemic — one that expands access to treatment and does not further criminalize those sick with addiction. I ask that they consider the price we are paying, in lives and resultant crime, because of failed policy and to consider this when exploring solutions Mainers will have to subsidize.

We pay to prevent messes or we pay to clean them up, and the costs associated with the latter are too damn high.

The Legislature should consult with the medical, mental health and addiction-focused communities, giving them as much authority in developing a response to these outbreaks as the law enforcement community. Resist posturing to prove points, as posturing in the face of these dire circumstances has done little to nothing in the way of saving lives.

We appear so fixated on keeping young people in this state and attracting new ones to it as a means of keeping our economy vibrant. But what is our plan for keeping those already here — and all of our residents, really — safe, healthy and able to contribute?

This should not be a partisan issue. It should be about stopping a fatal storm and investing in our future. Establish a veto-proof majority to get a comprehensive solution passed.

Augusta has done a great deal to hurt our confidence in its ability to govern, though there appears to be a glimmer of hope in the Legislature’s defiance against the brazen nature of our off-the-rails executive. Lawmakers should continue to illustrate their capability and willingness to govern.

Please, come together and thoughtfully and considerately address this problem before the death toll faces another heart-sinking uptick.

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Cornish.


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