February 23

Drug treatment funding in Maine is falling, but demand is greater than ever

The number of people seeking treatment for opiate addiction has increased 15 percent since 2010; funding has decreased by 7 percent during the same period.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Daniel Vassie Jr., recovering heroin addict from New Gloucester

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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But it is difficult to persuade states to spend more.

Sue Foster, director of policy research and analysis for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, said it’s hard for people to see the value in supporting others’ poor choices.

“So we keep chasing the drug of the day. Right now, it’s heroin,” she said. “We’re focusing on the drug but not the addiction.”

Vassie understands taxpayers might balk at paying to help addicts recover. He also knows that without treatment, he could end up using heroin again.

His family is helping pay for his suboxone since he lost MaineCare coverage, and his counselor has been meeting with him for free.

“But I don’t want people out there thinking we’re not people,” Vassie said. “I’m a person. I have a name.”

ENFORCEMENT VERSUS TREATMENT

Gov. Paul LePage, in his State of the State address this month, addressed Maine’s drug problem and offered his solution for how to combat it.

“While some are spending all their time trying to expand welfare, we are losing the war on drugs,” he said.

LePage’s response was to beef up enforcement, proposing four new drug prosecutors; four new judges for drug courts in Portland, Lewiston, Bangor and Presque Isle; and 13 additional positions in the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.

There is an argument to be made for more positions: In 2013, the MDEA investigated 223 heroin cases, more than triple the number in 2011. By contrast, the number of investigations involving synthetic drugs decreased from 386 to 294 in that time.

In fact, one of the reasons heroin has seen a resurgence is because police have begun to crack down harder on abuse of synthetic opiates such as OxyContin and oxycodone.

The growing number of people using heroin in Maine mirrors a national trend. A recent Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey found that between 2007 and 2012, the number of heroin users nationwide increased from 373,000 to 669,000. The recent death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from a heroin overdose has also put an additional spotlight on the drug’s resurgence.

LePage’s focus contrasts sharply with that of Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, who devoted his entire State of the State address to his state’s growing drug problem, and calling for more treatment funding.

Some would like to see LePage take a similar approach.

Rep. Ann Dorney, D-Norridgewock, has been a physician for 31 years and has spent most of the last decade dealing with substance abuse.

“I can see why people want to save money,” she said, about eliminating MaineCare coverage for childless adults. “People are convinced that you just get sober and you’re better. Opiates are not like that. Five percent of people can just stop cold turkey. Most can’t.”

Mainstream trends in public policy have begun to tilt toward addiction intervention and treatment as a more effective response; LePage’s record – and that of the Legislature – has been mixed on the issue.

In early 2011, LePage proposed $4.4 million in cuts to substance abuse treatment funding, a nearly 10 percent decrease. He later reduced that by half, but lawmakers instead restored all of the funding.

In July the same year, LePage visited Serenity House, a halfway house in Portland for men receiving addiction treatment, calling its program a model. Serenity House, however, was one of 10 facilities that would have likely closed had his cuts taken effect.

Last July, LePage directed $50,000 from his emergency contingency fund to a drug treatment center in Ellsworth that works with the local drug court program. Drug courts allow participants facing criminal charges to avoid jail time if they enter treatment and submit to testing, an approach that advocates say is better for addicts because they would likely not receive treatment in prison.

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Additional Photos

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Steve Danzig, drug counselor in Windham and a former addict

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Sayra Small, recovering heroin addict from Durham

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Pharmacist Jim Pearce fills a suboxone prescription at Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program in Boston last year. Suboxone is an opiate replacement therapy drug used to help treat opiate cravings and withdrawal. Drug treatment officials say addicts often have their doses of suboxone or methadone tapered gradually until they no longer need it, but that timeline can vary depending on the severity of one’s addiction.

File Photo/Reuters



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