Northern New England tackles growing drug problem
AUGUSTA, Maine -- In the rural towns and cities of northern New England, a rising drug-abuse problem is overwhelming law enforcement, affecting hundreds of infants each year and sparking calls to action by state leaders who say enough is enough.
How to attack the scourge, though, takes on different forms.
"We must confront a troubling epidemic," Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage said in his State of the State address last week. "It's tearing at the social fabric of our communities. ... We are losing the war on drugs."
Just a month earlier, Vermont Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin notably dedicated nearly his entire speech to "a crisis bubbling just beneath the surface" -- the rising problem of heroin and painkiller abuse in his state. And on Thursday, New Hampshire Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan noted the growing drug problem in her State of the State address. But while Shumlin and Hassan see improving treatment and halting addiction before it begins as the way forward, LePage offered a different strategy for combating drug abuse by ramping up law enforcement efforts to "hunt down dealers and get them off the streets."
LePage wants to add 14 new drug enforcement agents to the 32 already working as well as four drug prosecutors and four judges for special drug courts -- a roughly $3 million proposal his administration says aims to cut off the problem at the source: the dealers.
In Maine, the number of babies born affected by drugs skyrocketed to more than 900 last year, or about 7 percent of all births, LePage said, up from roughly 160 in 2005. Meanwhile, 28 people died from heroin overdoses in 2012, four times as many as the year before, according to the attorney general's office.
Across the rest of northern New England, the statistics are just as sobering.
In New Hampshire in 2009, the last year for which health officials have statistics, the rate of babies born affected by drugs was 8.7 per 1,000 births, above the U.S. rate of 3.6 per 1,000. Officials expect the rate has continued to climb and note that maternal drug use has increased "significantly" in the past decade.
Law enforcement in New Hampshire say the state is in the midst of a heroin "epidemic." At least 61 people died of heroin overdoses in New Hampshire in 2013, compared with 38 the previous year, according to Kim Fallon, chief forensic investigator for the state medical examiner.
"New Hampshire has among the highest rates in the country of drug and alcohol abuse and dependence but ranks at the bottom in accessing treatment," Hassan said in her State of the State address. "We must focus on improving access to treatment for all substances, especially among our young people."
In neighboring Vermont, the number of heroin overdose deaths last year doubled from nine to 17. The number of babies treated for opiate withdrawal syndrome at Vermont hospitals has increased tenfold since 2002, according to the state health department.
Shumlin wants to boost funding to slash waiting lists for drug treatment programs, create a system that would allow some addicts to be sent for treatment immediately after their first contact with law enforcement and implement tougher sentences for drug traffickers and addicts who commit violent crimes while seeking money for drugs.
"None of us have the silver bullet to know how best to deal with this crisis," Shumlin told The Associated Press last week. "What I can tell you is that we've been trying the singular path of law enforcement for decades and we've been losing the battle. So what we're trying to do in Vermont is find a new way of dealing with a crisis and a battle that we're losing."
Highlighted by the recent death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, officials nationwide say heroin has become the cheap alternative for addicts after successful crackdowns on prescription painkiller abuse. The number of recorded heroin overdose deaths in the U.S. increased from 1,842 in 2000 to 3,036 in 2010, according to the most recent statistics available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They remain a small percentage of total drug overdose deaths.
Maine's Democratic lawmakers and advocates say LePage's focus on enforcement will take the state down a path that has already failed, while the rest of the country moves toward a health-based approach of increasing diversion programs and education opportunities for people with drug-addiction problems.
"This is just a continuation of the tough-on-crime rhetoric that we have been seeing and hearing for 40 years," said Rachel Healy, spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. "At first glance, that may seem like the best approach. But in reality we know now that doesn't work and that it's time to explore other options and to put our limited resources into programs we know do work."
LePage's administration says it has drug treatment programs in place for Maine residents to utilize and is willing to listen to all ideas to continue combating the drug problem. But with limited resources, there is only so much that the state can do right now, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said.
"There are many ways to tackle the problem, and it's going to take time to make a difference," she said. "But you have to start somewhere."
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