Former Gov. Paul LePage brought his campaign to Portland on Wednesday to blame his opponent, Gov. Janet Mills, for an increase in crime and overdose deaths. He said that groups practicing harm reduction policies favored by the Mills administration have used taxpayer funding to hand crack pipes and drug kits. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Standing in Portland’s Deering Oaks park, in front of a duck pond that was recently drained to search for a weapon used in a killing, former Gov. Paul LePage laid the blame for an increase in crime and overdose deaths on his political rival, incumbent Gov. Janet Mills.

“Crime in Portland is out of control,” LePage told the media Wednesday. “The drug trade is driving people out of the city and destroying the way of life for too many Maine families. Janet Mills is fueling the crime and drug crisis in Maine.”

LePage criticized the Mills administration for its support and funding of harm reduction efforts, which focus more on keeping people with substance use disorder safe than off of drugs. Such strategies as providing access to clean needles for injecting drugs or anti-overdose medication are endorsed by the American Medical Association, but LePage has opposed some efforts and said Wednesday the approaches are not working.

Mills defended state funding for organizations that offer proven harm reduction services though a spokeswoman, including both the overdose reversal medication naloxone and needle exchange programs, noting that 93 percent of people in Maine who experience an overdose today survive.

“The governor believes that every life is worth saving,” spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said on Wednesday. “Her approach is to invest in prevention, to keep Maine people with substance use disorders alive, and to provide them with treatment options that can put them on the long-term path to recovery.”

Last year, 636 people died from a drug overdose: a new record for Maine and a 23 percent increase from the record set in 2020. In the first six months of 2022, Portland recorded more fatal drug overdoses, 28, than it did in all of 2021, 23.


LePage called out two grant-funded Maine-based harm reduction groups, the Church of Safe Injection and Maine Access Points, for distributing “meth and crack pipes” in safe smoking kits given to Mainers with substance use disorder. He said such a practice would shock and offend most Mainers.

“As a brother of siblings who struggle with substance abuse, I understand the need to try to help people try to recover from addiction,” LePage said. “However, the tactics of these organizations are concerning. I do not support handing out crack pipes and drug kits by organizations receiving taxpayer funding.”

The two organizations are working with MaineHealth to expand harm reduction services through a three-year $1.2 million federal grant from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Harm reduction supplies, such as providing clean needles to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, are covered by the grant.

Both organizations have posted on social media about handing out pipes. In 2020, for example, the Church of Safe Injection handed out 31 meth pipes and 26 crack pipes at Deering Oaks.

The group’s director of operations, Zoe Brokos, did not respond to interview requests Wednesday.

Drug treatment specialists around the country say providing pipes is a way to bring drug users into contact with treatment services as well as providing users with a less lethal alternative to injecting drugs such as fentanyl. They say the onset of a drug is slower when it is smoked than injected, and avoiding needles reduces the likelihood of infection or spreading disease.



Dr. Noah Nesin is a family doctor at the Penobscot Community Health Center in Bangor. He said distributing sterile pipes is just one piece in the harm reduction community’s tool bag to prevent deaths and to curb the spread of infectious diseases or injury. Nesin saw LePage’s news conference and said that LePage is reverting to his old “playbook” of trying to demonize people with substance use disorder and those trying to help them recover.

“We can’t go back to the terrible biases that he manifested when he was governor,” Nesin warned. “I think what he is trying to do is a red herring. He is trying to stir up the biases about this disease and I find that really troubling.”

Another Maine-based harm reduction expert, Courtney Gary-Allen, said she supports all of the harm reduction methods in place, even clean crack pipes, especially if it means that it could save a life. She found LePage’s remarks about forcing persons suffering from substance use disorder to pay for additional does of Narcan, an opiod reversal drug, deeply disturbing. Narcan has been used countless times to save persons suffering from an overdose, she said.

“What I saw today is that former Governor LePage has not learned and he has not changed. He will continue to put policies in place that could end up killing people,” said Gary-Allen, Organizing Director for the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project.

Gary-Allen said she spent her entire day answering questions from the substance use disorder community about LePage’s remarks. “We are terrified of what the world could look like on Nov. 9 if he is elected,” she said.



LePage’s attack on harm reduction programs and the distribution of pipes used to smoke illicit drugs echoes similar Republican attacks in other states, as well as in Congress. Conservatives in the Senate, including Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Ted Cruz of Texas, cited the distribution of “crack pipes” when calling for restrictions on federal funding for less controversial harm reduction programs such as needle exchanges, the New York Times reported this year.

The Biden administration has responded to the attacks by saying no public funding would be spent on pipes, and there’s no evidence taxpayer money has been used for the pipe distribution efforts, including those in Maine.

Crete, Mills’ spokeswoman, did not respond to a question about whether the governor supports the distribution of pipes in the harm-reduction kits.

While LePage focused on the crack and meth pipes handed out by harm reduction groups, he also criticized what he described as loosely supervised medication-assisted treatment and repeated injections of naloxone to reverse overdoses.

Such “holistic” approaches are not working, LePage said. He recalled standing outside a methadone clinic and watching patients walk in, get their methadone and walk out in under seven minutes. Not much counseling going on there, he said.


When asked Wednesday about Narcan, LePage said the first injection should be free. If the revived patient has enough money to buy drugs to overdose again, then they can afford to pay for the second, third or fourth dose of naloxone they get that month, he said.


Democrats responded Wednesday with a written statement saying LePage spent eight years trying to block efforts to address the opioid crisis. He vetoed bills to cut costs for less addictive opioids and fund treatment centers, nixed millions in federal funds for opioid treatment programs and refused to expand access to naloxone, they said.

“Paul LePage put the safety of Maine people at risk,” said Drew Gattine, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party. “Governor Mills has spent her entire life fighting to make Maine’s communities safer. No amount of scaremongering from Paul LePage can change that.”

Since taking office, Mills has reversed many of LePage’s public safety failures, Gattine said. She expanded access to naloxone and made a $50 million investment in affordable housing through the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan to help Maine’s unhoused population.

When he was in office, LePage faced criticism for his opioid policies, especially during his second term, when the number of fatal overdoses began to climb. On Wednesday, he pointed to areas of his record he believed kept the problem from being as bad as it is under Mills.


He increased the number of investigators at the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, increased Maine law enforcement pay and added photos to electronic benefits cards, saying that would prevent welfare recipients from selling the benefit cards to dealers in exchange for drugs.

LePage also touted a $150 million bond to create, among other things, a 200-bed detox facility at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, but he claims the Mills administration scrapped his plan and built a library, school, cafeteria and visitor center instead.

Prison officials say the project was revised, however, after it went $75 million over budget. They claim Maine doesn’t need the extra detox beds – it has 800 empty prison beds already – to provide top-notch medication-assisted addiction treatment to its 700 prisoners with substance use disorder.

“Detox happens early on in somebody’s incarceration, in the county jails,” said Commissioner Randall Liberty of the Department of Corrections, a former sheriff. “By the time they get to state prison, we are looking at long-term treatment needs, and that’s what we give them.”


If elected, LePage said he would add additional detox-specific beds at the Windham facility and start a program in Maine’s drug courts that would give those with substance abuse disorder a way to expunge their criminal records if they finish the detox program in Windham and a year of post-prison sobriety.


LePage’s news conference came two weeks after the Republican candidate for Congress in the 1st District also held a news conference in Portland to highlight the rise in violence, including a spike in violent crime in Portland this summer. Ed Thelander, who is challenging Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said Democrats were partly responsible. “Much of the blame for this rise in crime are the results of policies pushed by Rep. Pingree and her progressive colleagues in Washington,” he said.

The pond used a backdrop for LePage’s news conference has been drained since Walter Omal, a 31-year-old man from Portland, was shot Sept. 7 near a pair of park benches facing the pond close to the intersection of Park Avenue and State Street. He was rushed to the hospital and later died.

Amin Awes Mohamed, 38, of Boston, is charged with one count of murder and is being held without bail at Cumberland County Jail. An affidavit that could explain the evidence in the case has been sealed.

In their search for evidence, police ordered the park’s pond drained, and by the day after the shooting a half dozen investigators had put on waterproof gear and waded into the mud, using their feet, rakes, shovels and metal detectors to look for a weapon. None was found.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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