Gov. Paul LePage closed his State of the State speech last week with a call for compassion. Maine’s drug problem has grown during his three years in office, and the social costs have become too great to bear. Illegal drug abuse leads to crime, the governor pointed out. It also results in overdose deaths, and, most tragically, “drug-addicted” babies, who create “lifelong challenges to our health care system, schools and social services.”
The governor’s reccomended response: spending $3 million more on law enforcement, hiring more police officers, prosecutors and judges to put more drug abusers behind bars.
We applaud the governor’s compassion, but his assessment of the problem and his proposed solution are both completely wrong-headed. They will do nothing to help the children he says he wants to help and likely would make the drug problem worse, not better.
The governor’s main argument hinges on a media-created fiction — the “drug-addicted” baby.
Babies can be born dependent on drugs, but they are incapable of the uncontrollable, compulsive behavior that defines addiction. A baby born to a drug-addicted mother may suffer withdrawal, but that can be managed after birth with little long-term effect. The experience of living in a chaotic home with an addicted parent, however, is much harder to overcome.
The idea of the addicted baby appeared in the 1980s, when “crack baby” hysteria swept the nation. News reports sensationalized a single study based on a small sample that raised the question of whether children exposed to cocaine in the womb might have specific birth defects. Much like LePage last week, politicians from President Ronald Reagan on down warned about a future when “the most expensive babies ever born,” with serious physical and neurological defects, would overwhelm every social service system in the country.
Now, nearly 30 years later, those children are grown, and the warnings proved to be greatly exaggerated.
A massive federally funded study conducted by the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia tracked hundreds of African-American babies born to low-income families during the crack epidemic. After the children grew up, researchers found that full-term and near-term babies exposed in utero to cocaine were indistinguishable from other babies who had not been exposed. But both groups lagged behind the norm on intelligence and psychological tests.
“We went looking for the effects of cocaine, (but) we began to ask, âWas there something else going on?'” lead researcher Hallam Hurt told The Philadelphia Inquirer. The answer they came up with has real relevance to what’s happening in Maine: “Poverty is a more powerful influence on the outcome of inner-city children than gestational exposure to cocaine.”
It’s not that drug use by pregnant women is safe: Drug use causes complicated pregnancies that can result in premature births, which do have lifelong consequences for babies. But the drugs that pregnant women with addictions put in their blood don’t cause as much damage as the impoverished household an addicted mother is likely to provide for her baby.
The best way to improve the lives of the children of drug addicts is to get their parents off drugs, not put them in jail. That means making sure everyone who needs treatment has access to it — sometimes again and again before it succeeds.
Once they are born, all children need safe housing, good nutrition and high-quality education to have the best chance for a healthy and productive life. But in his time in office, the governor has called for cuts to General Assistance funding (which is paid out mostly in housing vouchers), vetoed a summertime lunch program for low-income children, cut Head Start and dropped the ball on expanding early childhood education programs.
He has proposed deep cuts to treatment programs, instituted limits on how much treatment a MaineCare recipient can access in her or his lifetime and has dropped 19,000 adults from the MaineCare rolls.
Further criminalizing addiction — a mental disorder — will only make pregnant women and parents less likely to seek treatment, feeding the very problem the governor says he wants to fix.
LePage is right to show concern for the children of drug users, but his focus is far too narrow.
Alcohol abuse by women of childbearing years is far more prevalent than illegal drug use and produces the same risk factors experienced by children who live under a drug addict’s care. Tobacco use during pregnancy is proven to cause premature births, and is far more common than opiate use. If the goal is to help more children live healthy and productive lives, why focus solely on illegal drugs?
And treating drug use exclusively as a law enforcement problem ignores what decades of research have shown to be the most effective ways to respond to a complex problem, which has as many psychological causes as criminal ones.
Compassion is good, but it’s better when its combined with a little thought. The governor should do his homework and come back with a real plan for addressing Maine’s drug problem.