It’s hard to imagine that Maine’s addiction crisis could get worse, but it has. A total of 378 people died from overdoses last year — 39 percent more than the previous all-time high of 273 in 2015. Of the deaths, 313 were because of opiates such as heroin and fentanyl.
It might be tempting to favor a solution touted by President Donald Trump: building a wall along the border with Mexico. After all, most heroin comes from or through that country.
“The wall is gonna stop drugs coming into Maine, New Hampshire,” Trump said nearly a year ago when he visited Portland on a campaign stop.
If only the solution to save Maine lives was so simple.
Walls don’t stop drugs, of course, especially heroin. That’s because heroin can easily be condensed and cut later — making it more profitable and less risky than cocaine, meth or marijuana to move across a border.
Recently, Sam Quinones wrote an OpEd for The New York Times about a small-time rancher he met in Sinaloa, Mexico. The rancher had gotten caught smuggling black-tar heroin in his shoes at a border crossing. Like almost every farmer he knew, he needed a way to earn money to buy a couple cows, or a tractor.
With so much heroin traveling in small batches, it’s unrealistic to expect a wall to prevent it from moving north, wrote Quinones, author of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.”
“A lot of heroin trafficking happens a kilo or two at a time. Other ranchers told me they used hollow hammers, toothpaste tubes, a woman’s hair, backpacks or the carburetor of a truck. No wall stops that kind of trafficking,” Quinones wrote.
No matter what blockades are put up, people will keep finding ways to smuggle heroin into the United States if someone at the end of the journey is willing to pay. Even with all the security surrounding airplanes, for instance, border officials seized more than 800 pounds of heroin at airports in 2014.
“They may reroute their product through Canada. They may start shipping more drugs via Priority Mail. They may resort to submarines, drones, and other outlandish conveyances that authorities haven’t even thought of yet,” The Washington Post’s Wonkblog said after Trump’s Maine visit last March.
If anything is worth spending billions of dollars on, it’s not a wall. It’s prevention programs, treatment offerings and recovery support to reduce demand for drugs. There has been endless media attention and there have been well-meaning community efforts to refocus the issue, but investing in treatment hasn’t drawn the same level of proposed investment as enforcement, even as the need for treatment grows greater. That’s why it was encouraging to hear Gov. Paul LePage’s support for medication-assisted treatment during his recent State of the State speech.
Only one in five Americans with an opiate-use disorder is receiving methadone or buprenorphine, the two most common anti-addiction medications, according to a November 2015 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health.
There is a shortage of health care professionals licensed and willing to offer the medications, and patients often lack insurance or the ability to pay. Even though people desperately want to stop using drugs, the resources aren’t available to help usher them into recovery.
Addiction can be managed successfully, but “Help people” just doesn’t rally crowds the same way as “Build the wall.” It should.