It is encouraging that the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage agreed on legislation that addresses the state’s drug crisis so quickly after the start of the session.

As acknowledged by the governor and legislative leaders, however, it is, along with the LePage administration’s ongoing effort to rein in the overprescribing of opiate pain medication, only a first step in solving a problem that has not yet found its ceiling.

From the experiences of people with addictions and their families, it is clear that the opiate crisis has overwhelmed Maine’s treatment capacity. At the same time, state funding available for treatment was left unspent last year, and the Department of Health and Human Services says the best available data shows no such shortfall.

More people can’t get the treatment they desperately need, and state dollars cannot be spent effectively, unless that conflict is resolved. It is the key to slowing the drug crisis, and it should be the next goal for policymakers.


There’s no doubt that the last five years have brought an exponential increase in the drug problem in Maine. In 2014, 3,463 people sought treatment for opiate addiction, up from 1,115 in 2010. The number of overdoses attributed to heroin went from nine in 2009, to 57 in 2014, to 71 through the first nine months of 2015, the latest data available.

There have been similar increases in the number of drug-affected babies born in the state as well as the number of hepatitis C cases.

Substance abuse treatment centers have struggled to keep up with the demand, particularly after the closing of medication-assisted treatment facilities in Westbrook and Sanford, leaving advocates and health professionals to bemoan the lack of options for people seeking help, particularly those without insurance. Addicts and their families have said the same at forum after forum.

Meanwhile, for the same reasons, law enforcement officials who have launched initiatives to connect nonviolent drug users to treatment are sending most of those people to programs out of state.

All that points to a problem that is exceeding the state’s grasp.


But DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew says that is at odds with the information the department has received from its substance abuse treatment contractors. More state money than ever is being spent on treatment — about $76 million last year, up from $58 million in 2008 — and even in the midst of a crisis, $500,000 was left over in 2014, Mayhew said.

That basic disagreement on the street-level circumstances of the drug crisis must be resolved for the Legislature to have any hope of passing further bills aimed at expanding treatment.

At the core of this problem are Mainers sick with addiction, and the fastest and most humane way out of the drug crisis is to connect them with the help they need.

If people seeking help are not finding and staying with it for reasons beyond capacity or affordability, it will require a different response.

The $3.7 million bill passed Tuesday and signed hours later by LePage was a promising start to the session, but a much larger treatment package is necessary, one that gives more Mainers an opportunity to undergo treatment that involves the medications methadone or Suboxone, the most proven treatments for opiate addiction.

For that to happen, though, lawmakers and the LePage administration have to agree again, this time on the underlying barriers to treatment.

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