I doubt anyone would disagree that we need to make headway in reducing illegal drug use in this country. We know the toll that illegal drug use takes on families, on communities, on our state and on our economy.

What do we know, though, about what works to reduce drug use? Actually, we know quite a lot, thanks to research in the areas of neuroscience and economics.

We know from neuroscience that the way infant and toddler brains are built between birth and age 3 can make the difference between a child who enters kindergarten ready to succeed and one who is more likely to drop out before graduation.

We know that building a baby’s brain is like building a house. Like the foundation of a house, it won’t need fixing if it’s built correctly. Caring relationships with adults are what build the foundations of infant and toddler brains.

Caring relationships provide serve-and-return interactions between babies and adults, with babies “serving” sounds and gestures and adults “returning” the sounds and gestures. It may sound too simple, but when those babies are attended to in a stable environment those kinds of interactions actually build 700 brain synapses per minute.

Those synapses form the foundation for the sensory pathways — vision, hearing, touch — for language and for higher cognitive functions, which all peak within the first few years of life and affect that child’s life into adulthood.


When those caring serve-and-return relationships don’t exist early in a child’s life, when a child doesn’t experience consistency, safety and a feeling of being loved and cared for, the stress under which that child is living is known as toxic stress. It’s called toxic stress because it actually derails brain building by flooding the brain with a chemical that inhibits critical synapse connections.

Toxic stress occurs when infants, toddlers and children live with conditions such as physical, emotional or sexual child abuse and/or neglect, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, and/or an absent parent. It’s the kind of stress that affects the environment in the home, making it chaotic, dysfunctional and/or dangerous.

In addition to the neuroscience research, physical and mental health research has been done about specific toxic stressors during the past 20 years. Adverse Childhood Experiences research has revealed that what happens to children in their early years can play a large part in their adult mental and physical health.

The research on Adverse Childhood Experiences and the affect they have on adult mental and physical health and the likelihood of people’s addiction to eating, drugs, alcohol and almost anything that will help dull their inner pain, makes it clear that how we care for our children is key to our future economic prosperity.

What if we took the knowledge we now have and funded another path to tackling the war on drugs? Clearly the one we’ve been waging on the supply side has done little, if anything, to achieve that goal.

What if we actually tried a different approach and focused the prevention of problems in the first place? What if we stopped talking about the fact that children are our future and actually acted as though we believed that?


And, for those already addicted, what if, instead of being all about punishing them, we actually spent our time and efforts helping to heal them so they wouldn’t need drugs in the first place?

What if we thought about lost economic productivity when people suffer from addiction and supported efforts to effectively reduce demand, rather than just try to reduce the supply, which I might add we have been doing very ineffectively during the past 50 years?

This past Friday and Saturday, there were opinion pieces by a senior vice president of Kennebec Savings Bank, the Kennebec County sheriff, the Augusta chief of police, the co-chairman of Bread for the World, and a concerned individual supporting the continued funding of primary prevention programs, all of which Gov. Paul LePage has chosen to defund in his proposed budget.

The programs that have proven economic results include Head Start and Early Head Start, Maine Families Home Visiting, Public Health Nursing, pre-K and quality child care, all of which have been and continue to be targets of this governor throughout his five years in office.

Maine used to be a leader in these programs but, at the best of times, we served about only one in four of the children and families who were eligible.

I wonder why we are so determined to continue down a path that hasn’t worked since we began this war on drugs in the 1980s? Attacking the supply and locking up the users has gotten us to where drug abuse is a bigger problem than ever. It hasn’t created a safer situation for children who grow up feeling unsafe and unloved. And, it hasn’t stopped them from using drugs as they age.

I wonder, too, if LePage had grown up loved and well cared for whether his approach to prevent and cure addiction would be based more on research about what works and less on his need to punish those who are addicted.

Karen Heck is a longtime resident and former mayor of Waterville.


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