DRUG ABUSE IS capitalism at its most efficient. Addicts will find the cheapest, fastest and most readily available way to get high, and they’ll respond to market changes in a flash.

That’s part of what is happening in Maine and the rest of New England, as the full weight of the criminal justice system has come down on prescription drug abuse.

As a result, there have been fewer pharmacy robberies and, anecdotally at least, fewer people abusing painkillers.

It is a victory, but the spoils are temporary. There is now a growing problem with cheap, high-powered heroin, the refuge for addicts who are finding it harder to get their fix pharmaceutically.

As one problem is addressed, another rises in its place, and lives continue to be ruined.

There were 56 pharmacy robberies in 2012, up from 24 the year before, and the police responded well. There was a 100 percent arrest rate on the pharmacy robberies, and the robberies were prosecuted under federal laws, which usually lead to longer sentences.

So far this year, there have only been eight pharmacy robberies.

It’s similar to past responses. Pills too easy to abuse? Change the way they are constructed. Too easy to get? Create programs that cut down on doctor-shopping and monitor which doctors are prescribing in large amounts.

Those are all good ideas that have curbed prescription drug abuse. But people desperate for opiates are finding them regardless.

Health officials and police in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont are reporting an increase in heroin use and overdoses in the last year. The heroin is potent, and much cheaper than oxycodone or hydrocodone, the painkillers of choice.

And because of the crackdown on prescription painkillers, it is also more available.

“We’re not having pharmacy robberies anymore. How come?” Augusta Deputy Police Chief Jared Mills told the newspaper. “You’re going to go after the one that’s easier to get at the time. That’s the trend we’re seeing now, that there’s more heroin now than prescription medication.”

And even though pharmacy robberies are way down, drug-related crime persists. A Fairfield man was arrested for breaking into a Vassalboro home last week to fund his “$500-a-day” heroin habit.

“His story is not unlike dozens of people in this area,” Ryan Reardon, chief deputy of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, said following the arrest. “This is a never-ending story and a never-ending song in central Maine.”

Heroin, painkillers, bath salts, etc. — different chemical signatures but all used for the same purpose.

That’s why treatment is so important. It gives people that want it a way out, a way to end the cycle of addiction, with all its attendant social costs.

The Co-Occurring Disorders Court in Kennebec County, for instance, puts offenders with mental illness and substance abuse problems under strict requirements of treatment, counseling and reporting to the court.

The court’s veterans program recently celebrated its first two graduates. Both served with distinction in combat, and both fell into drugs upon returning home. One robbed a pharmacy.

But they now have a shot at a productive life, thanks to court’s recognition of their underlying problems.

That’s one case where Maine is doing it right. In another, Maine has it very wrong.

Starting this year, a two-year cap was placed on methadone and buprenorphine, two proven methods for treating opiate addiction. There should be an end game for people using this treatment, but it should be decided by doctors, not politicians.

Recovery is a difficult path and the cap and cuts just make it more difficult, and more likely that the person seeking treatment will end up in a backslide.

Police have to keep people safe from problems caused by drug abuse, but that is a short-term solution.

Without treatment, addiction doesn’t go away, it just goes elsewhere.

Ben Bragdon is the editorial page editor for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.

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