It’s a new year, and there’s a new Legislature ready to pitch in and work on a drug abuse problem.

Too bad they are working on the wrong one.

Last week, legislative leaders announced that they were ready to debate a one-year moratorium on portions of a voter-approved law that legalizes marijuana use for adults. Meanwhile, on average, overdoses – mostly of heroin, prescription opioids and fentanyl – claim one life in Maine every day, and the state still hasn’t done enough to face its most serious public health crisis.

Despite significant analysis of the problem, Maine still lacks the detox beds it needs to address the problem. It hasn’t even replaced the ones that disappeared as a result of the LePage administration’s misguided health care policy.

BEST THERAPY UNAVAILABLE

And even though the best evidence points to medication-assisted treatment as the best way to save lives, methadone clinics or doctor-prescribed Suboxone therapy is unavailable to many of the people who need it most because they can’t afford to pay for it.

That’s a problem that would be made even worse if Gov. LePage’s budget were to become law, because he would drop thousands more poor Mainers from MaineCare, putting drug treatment out of reach for them.

Given that laggard response to this crying need, the call to do something right away about the marijuana bill makes little sense. The most controversial aspects of the law – the licensing of retail stores and smoking clubs – wouldn’t go into effect for nine months anyway.

What kind of legislative magic do the leaders expect to occur in those extra three months?

This legislative session continues until June. Why not just have the state agencies start working on the regulations? If the rules are not ready when it’s time to adjourn, lawmakers could pass an emergency bill then.

There is a drug crisis in Maine that demands emergency attention, but marijuana isn’t it.

POT LAW AFFECTS RELATIVELY FEW

With all due respect to the citizens who campaigned for the referendum, polling shows that about 20 percent of adults are at least infrequent users, making the law irrelevant to most of the remaining 80 percent.

Even if marijuana use were to climb when it becomes legal, it’s safe to assume that no one will die from too much marijuana – because no one ever has.

Science has yet to find a dose that would be lethal, which separates the drug from alcohol, over-the-counter medications and dozens of items commonly found in most people’s homes.

There are health problems associated with excessive marijuana use, but they pale in comparison with the very real consequences evidenced by hundreds of opioid deaths a year. The opioid problem is out of control and getting worse.

How did slowing down pot legalization jump to the head of the line?

It’s not that Maine has not taken some important steps. The state passed new protocols for prescribing pain medication that should lower the supply of what has become the true gateway drug in the opioid epidemic.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced last month that it would make $2.4 million available for medication-assisted treatment for people who do not have health insurance.

COORDINATED APPROACH

Private organizations like Maine Behavioral Health are coordinating acute and long-term treatment for people who want to beat their addiction with the help of both medicine and therapy.

But the state could do much more to lead the fight. If you need to see an example of what that would look like, you don’t need to go very far.

In 2013, Maine and Vermont were both reeling from a spike in overdose deaths. Maine lost 174 people while Vermont, with about half the population, lost 93.

In 2014, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin made fighting opioid abuse his top priority in his State of the State Address. He articulated a strategy that involved law enforcement and health care, creating a “hub and spoke” system, where addicts could start in a detox center and move to community-based treatment under the care of a physician.

Though the overdose deaths haven’t stopped in Vermont, they have stayed constant over the last three years. But in Maine they have increased from 174 in 2013 to 216 in 2014 and 272 in 2015. Last year Maine averaged one overdose death a day through the first nine months, smashing what had been a deeply disturbing record.

Lawmakers in Augusta are expected to debate the marijuana bill this week, and leaders predict that it will pass with the two-thirds majority it would need to go into effect immediately as an emergency measure. Gov. LePage has made public statements indicating that he would support putting off this change to the law.

Meanwhile, on average, a Mainer dies every day. That’s a real emergency. That’s the drug abuse problem that needs their attention.

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