It appeared that when December 10 came and went — and there were no National Guard troops marching through the streets tracking down out-of-state drug dealers like “Scummy,” “Shifty” and “AK” — that the truce between Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature over drug policy had held. Last month, LePage gave a December 10 deadline ultimatum to legislative leaders to fund 10 new Maine drug enforcement agents, telling the Appropriations Committee, “You either work with me and get me some agents or I will call the Guard up. It’s that simple.”
Legislature Comes to Drug Treatment Compromise
With time running out, Senate President Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo County) and House Speaker Mark Eves (D-North Berwick) agreed to a last-minute compromise two days before the December 10 moment of truth. The $4.8 million package includes increased funding for drug education and prevention, treatment, and $2.4 million for 10 MDEA agents. The plan devotes another $1 million to a new 10-bed detox unit in Bangor, $600,000 for peer-to-peer recovery centers and $800,000 to help uninsured people with addictions get access to inpatient and outpatient drug treatment. The Eves/Thibodeau bill would also create a position for a statewide coordinator that would help connect law enforcement to treatment providers and recovery programs.
The bill also provides $10,000 in start-up funding to launch five programs around the state based on the Gloucester, Massachusetts, “Angel” initiative that allows people with addictions to seek treatment through local police departments without fear of arrest. The Scarborough Police Department adopted its own version of the program, Operation HOPE, in October and has since reportedly placed 75 people in long-term treatment programs that they otherwise would not have had access to. Two-thirds of the people HOPE has helped couldn’t afford health care coverage.
Speaking at a December 9 press conference in Augusta, Officer John Gill of the Scarborough PD said that the vast majority of the individuals his department has helped have received treatment through donated rehabilitation and treatment programs in seven different states.
“On a daily basis, Maine’s police officers see firsthand the impact of substance abuse on families and communities,” said Gill. “Good people, in many cases your friends and neighbors, who suffer secretly, having lost hope and seeing no way out as they fight for their life or the life of a loved one.… These are our fellow Mainers, residents of the communities that we are charged with protecting. We treat them with respect, kindness and compassion. If someone comes to us seeking help for heroin or opiate dependency, they can turn over any drugs or paraphernalia without fear of arrest.”
On the day before the press conference, Thibodeau notified the governor of the compromise, adding that “While I’d like to deliver this message personally, my attempts to obtain a meeting with you for the past several months have been unsuccessful.” The governor, who has refused to meet with Thibodeau since April because the Senate President killed his tax plan, fired back a letter the next day announcing that he was immediately issuing an executive order to borrow over $781,000 from the Gambling Control Board to fund his MDEA agents.
“Since you have assured me the Legislature will fund these 10 agents in an expedited manner in January, I am authorizing funds by way of financial order so MDEA can immediately begin to contract agents,” wrote LePage, adding, “Also, as has been communicated to you repeatedly, I am more than willing to meet with you on matters of good public policy that will move our state forward and benefit the Maine people.”
The Governor Strikes Back
However, the truce between the Legislature and LePage proved to be short lived. At one of the governor’s “town hall forums,” on December 8 at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, the governor got into a heated exchange with members of the audience when he complained that the state is spending too much money on saving people’s lives with the overdose-reversal drug Narcan and not spending enough on locking up drug dealers.
“We gave everybody Narcan and everybody seems to think that Narcan is good,” said LePage. “Well, let me tell you what Narcan is doing. It’s not saving lives. It’s extending lives.”
“So what are you trying to do? Just let them die?” one audience member shouted.
“No,” answered LePage. “What I’m trying to do is get the supply side.”
Andrew Kiezulas of the addiction recovery advocacy group Young People in Recovery then asked, “Does treatment work, Governor?”
To which LePage retorted, “Not in heroin.”
“Does recovery work?” asked Kiezulas, who has been clean from opiates for over three years.
“10 percent are working,” LePage replied.
LePage also argued that he had cut the prescribing of prescription opiates in the MaineCare program by 51 percent. However, Kiezulas later pointed out to The Free Press that the reason why a majority of those individuals are no longer prescribed prescription opiates is because they were among the 25,000 MaineCare recipients who the governor permanently cut from MaineCare rolls. DHHS did not respond to a request for clarification.
Another Battle Brewing
Two days later in a letter to LePage outlining the Eves/Thibodeau bill, Speaker Eves criticized the governor for disagreeing with the effectiveness of addiction treatment programs.
“These are Maine citizens, our neighbors, and our children,” wrote Eves. “They deserve our compassion and support.”
A week later on December 17, LePage wrote back thanking Eves for his “comprehensive proposal” calling it “nothing more than a few bullet points with no source of funding identified to implement your ideas.” He accused Eves of “playing politics” with people’s lives by not funding the MDEA agents earlier.
“It is not compassionate to wait until bodies hit the floor, then test which way the political wind is blowing before you decide to do what’s right,” wrote LePage. “. . . Your priorities are lopsided and designed to be politically expedient, but they are certainly not compassionate to Maine families losing loved ones on a daily basis.”
While Thibodeau and Eves said they believed they could pass the bill as soon as they return in the first week of January, given LePage’s recent comments, they might have difficulty getting it past his veto pen. The House Republicans, who have the power to uphold any veto if they vote lockstep with the governor, have signaled that they aren’t necessarily on board with the House Democratic and the Senate Republican deal.
In a joint statement on December 9, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport) and Assistant Minority Leader Ellie Espling (R-New Gloucester) said they supported the funding for the MDEA agents but that “any comprehensive plan addressing this issue must have input from House Republicans during the process in order to ensure the support of our caucus.” House Republicans have often closely allied with LePage on a number of his actions, such as holding up the release of voter-approved LMF bonds and blocking a budget compromise last spring.
Another rancorous showdown between the Legislature and the governor could be on the horizon if LePage tries to block the omnibus bill. Meanwhile, Attorney General Janet Mills has announced that the state is currently averaging about five overdose deaths a week.