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Maine Gov Pledges to Crack Down on Drug Abuse
10/25/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Maine Gov. Paul LePage and Public Safety Commissioner John Morrison say they learned some troubling details today about the extent of Maine's drug problem. The two held a pair of meetings billed as "drug summits" with police and other officials in Westbrook and Auburn. As Susan Sharon reports, the governor plans to introduce a series of bills in the next legislative session to reduce the number of drug-dependent babies born in Maine, and to crack down on repeat drug offenders.

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Gov. Paul LePage says when it comes to drug abuse, he thought he'd heard it all. Turns out, he hadn't.

"Two things I've heard that I never knew about: Dentists prescribe a lot of opiates, and veterinarians are also involved in the drug trade by prescribing opiate drugs for the pets - and that's a growing trend," he says.

In other words, people are drug seeking through their pets. They show up at the veterinarian's office, complain that the pet is in pain, get a prescription for pain medication and go on to abuse it themselves.

That was just one of several stories the governor says he heard from local police in his meetings. The other front-burner issues involve the increase in heroin use around Maine, funding cuts to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and the increasing number of drug dependent babies born in the state: 835 in the past year.

"And when I heard 835, I was very upset," LePage says. "But then I found out that a state like Tennessee, which is much larger than Maine - they're upset that they have 800, so what's that say to Maine? That's probably another one of those unfortunate situations where we're number one again. We have to do a better job."

The meetings with the governor and local law enforcement were closed to the press. But the drug epidemic is not just a southern Maine problem, it's a statewide one. In Ellsworth, Police Chief John DeLeo has been accustomed to dealing with prescription drug abuse, along with cocaine and marijuana trafficking. But last week, the city could have been the setting for an episode of the hit TV show "Breaking Bad."

DeLeo says two men and a woman set up a mobile methamphetamine lab in the middle of a parking lot at the Hampton Inn. All three were arrested, but DeLeo says things could have gotten more dangerous for a city that has had relatively little experience in dealing with meth labs.

"It got a little scary," DeLeo says. "I don't think a lot of people realize how dangerous the drug itself is, but just the process of cooking it and the chemicals involved."

DeLeo says LePage and the Legislature can assist local police departments in three ways: enforcement, prevention and treatment. Federal funding for Maine drug enforcement has declined from $3 million to about $1 million a year. And the problem is not just at the federal level. The Maine Legislature cut the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency's budget by $350,000 this year. Brewer Police Chief Perry Antone says the funding cut will be felt by the state's premier drug enforcement unit.

"Maine Drug Enforcement, obviously, has been cut back through the years, and increasing the enforcement efforts is important, holding people accountable," Antone says. "Because a lot of the drugs that we're seeing now are so much more dangerous to people's health, as well as the public, that enforcement really needs to be active on that."

Gov. LePage says he hasn't decided what will be included in the package of bills he'll introduce to tackle substance abuse, but he says he intends to address the number of drug agents on the ground, attempt to crack down on repeat drug offenders who are winding up in jail, and explore options for treatment.

But the governor is not a big fan of maintenance medications such as methadone and Suboxone to treat opiate addiction. "The biggest problem, the biggest drug and the most dangerous drug to a child, is methadone."

But evidence indicates that there are also benefits for the use of methadone. According to the National Institutes of Health, of the various treatments available, methadone maintenance combined with counseling "has the highest probabilitiy of being effective." In addition, the NIH maintains that "the safety and efficacy of methadone maintenance has been unequivocally established."

The LePage administration has repeatedly sought to restrict MaineCare coverage for patients receiving methadone and Suboxone. Currently there's a two-year limit.

A.J. Higgins contributed to this story.



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