Gov. Paul LePage says he’s given up on working to ease the state’s drug crisis. Fortunately, lawmakers are still at work on the issue — and the governor’s lack of involvement could lead to a better outcome.
During a radio interview this week, he again blasted lawmakers for not doing exactly what he suggested to combat drug addiction. For that reason, he said he was done with the problem.
“If they want drugs, let them have drugs,” the governor said during his now-weekly appearance on the WVOM radio morning program. “There’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve tried everything I can and the Legislature keeps killing the bills so hey, have at it, boys.” (Note to the governor: There are women in the Legislature.)
Drug addiction and its huge toll on Maine are complex issues that require numerous, equally complex solutions. LePage chooses to focus on law enforcement and punishment. Others, including many lawmakers, have supported expanded treatment and health care coverage.
The current legislative session began with bipartisan fanfare as the first bill lawmakers passed — unanimously — included money and support for both treatment and law enforcement. The bill was far from perfect but it set an important, if short-lived, tone of cooperation and compromise. The governor got the 10 drug enforcement agents he had long demanded, and the legislation included a small increase in funding for treatment and peer support. Realizing that this bill was just a start, lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, along with LePage, submitted additional legislation that addresses the drug crisis in numerous ways. Some bills were passed, some rejected and others amended to make them better and to gain critical support.
Take for example, the governor’s bill to restrict prescriptions for pain medication. As it was introduced, by Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Newport, on behalf of the governor, LD 1646 included strict prescribing limits on pain medication; doctors and many legislators opposed it. Lawmakers amended the bill, and it is now in line with what other states, including Massachusetts, have done and what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends.
The updated bill would limit opioid painkiller prescriptions to seven days for acute pain and 30 days for chronic pain. It also would limit patients to 100 morphine milligram equivalents per day. Both of these limits mirror CDC guidelines. It also includes needed exemptions for cancer patients and palliative and hospice care.
Lawmakers also improved a revised bill related to penalties for drug possession. LD 1554, as originally written and championed by Attorney General Janet Mills, would have made first-time possession of many opioid drugs a felony. Under the current amended version, possession of small amounts of heroin, fentanyl and unprescribed opioid pills will remain a misdemeanor crime. Furnishing and trafficking are felonies. Evidence shows that jail time does not stem addiction. Conversely, without the threat of jail, people with addictions can be more likely to seek needed treatment.
During the radio interview, LePage complained that lawmakers killed a bill he supported to suspend the driver’s license of those convicted of drug crimes. The Senate rejected the measure, which would have erected a new barrier for those seeking treatment for addiction.
The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators recommends against suspending driver’s licenses for non-driving related offenses. There is no evidence that such penalties work, and they hurt rural and low-income residents, the group concluded in a 2013 report. That’s why 34 states, including Maine, have opted out of a federal law requiring suspensions for drug offenses. Last month, LePage said he would not apply for another waiver, but the Legislature can and should.
One of the best ways to address addiction is to ensure those with a substance use disorder have access to treatment and medical care. Expanding Medicaid to cover more Mainers would be a big step forward. Although lawmakers have again endorsed such an expansion, LePage is expected to veto it — again.
Lawmakers won’t solve Maine’s drug crisis this legislative session or the next, but they are working hard to enact law changes that will help people with addictions while also reducing the flow of drugs into Maine. It’s a shame that the governor would rather insult their work than join it.