AUBURN — Maine Gov. Paul LePage said Friday he would be advancing a package of legislative proposals and other actions to help combat drug-related crime.

LePage said he would work to see that infants born drug-dependent would be removed from their parents’ custody. In 2013, 835 babies were born drug-dependent, largely from the abuse of painkillers or methadone, LePage said.

“That is an unacceptable behavior for a society and we can’t turn our heads anymore,” the governor said. “We have to fix this problem. I’m all for a good, efficient safety net, but I’m not going to stand by and watch a safety net be used to addict unborn children. That’s a form of abuse and that child should be taken immediately, never to see that person again.”

LePage said details of recent drug-crime investigations in Auburn revealed to him by police showed that illegal drug users and their dealers were taking money from the welfare system by using state-issued electronic benefit transfer cards as “credit cards for drugs.”

A photo of confiscated evidence that LePage showed to the Sun Journal depicted six EBT cards that had been traded, with their associated PINs, for drugs.

“What happens is they keep the EBT card until they load the card up at the beginning of the month and then they just drain it immediately to buy drugs,” LePage said. He said the practice was another example of how children were being victimized because the money, usually from the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, is meant to help children.

“The only victims are the children,” LePage said. 

He said doctors who over-prescribe opiate-based drugs are another part of the problem and should be held accountable. He said even painkillers prescribed for pets were being abused by people.

“I’ve heard about family-care physicians who are just dealing in drugs,” LePage said. “One officer said, ‘Oh yeah, we know who is doing it.’ So we have to do something about it.”

He also noted that the cost of treating babies born drug-dependent was largely borne by the publicly funded health-care system and those costs are enormous.

LePage and Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Morris said several themes emerged as they listened to law enforcement personnel describe the scene on the ground during closed-door meetings in Westbrook and Auburn on Friday.

The substance-abuse epidemic in Maine is responsible for a high percentage of all crimes in the state.

Lt. Frank Clark of the South Portland Police Department said drug abuse played a role in at least 20 percent of all arrests in his city over the past six years.

Clark said that number is likely low, and that if police were to “scratch the surface” of each instance of crime, the figure would be higher.

“Significantly higher,” Clark said after the meeting in Westbrook. “If someone is arrested repeatedly for robbery, we may find that the robberies were funding a drug addiction.”

According to police officials, those figures are not unusual. Morris has said in the past that drugs are the single largest cause of crime in Maine. Last year, the state saw a record 56 pharmacy robberies. The LePage administration has said that in 2010, the total estimated cost of substance abuse in Maine was more than $1.4 billion — more than $1,000 for every Maine resident.

Morris said that heroin was playing an increasing role in drug-related crimes.

One key issue is funding, LePage said, particularly to the beleaguered Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, which has 46 agents throughout the state. LePage said that’s not enough.

“Law enforcement is dedicated to solving the problem, but I’m not sure the state is dedicated to making the money available,” LePage said. “We’ve got to look at where the money is, how much we have and how we can help DEA. The last thing we want to do right now is cut back on DEA.”

MDEA Director Roy McKinney said federal funding for his agency had withered by about 60 percent in recent years.

“(Federal funds) continue to be reduced, year to year,” he said. “At one time, Maine was receiving on the order of just over $3 million a year. This past year, it was down to $1 million.”

Morris criticized the Legislature for cutting $350,000 of MDEA funding from LePage’s 2014-15 budget, which the governor had proposed in an effort to fill the gap created by federal revenue streams that have dwindled because of sequestration.

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, House chairwoman of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said it’s true lawmakers had cut the funding for MDEA, but only to make room for state revenue-sharing, which helps fund municipal police departments and emergency responders. LePage’s budget proposal had suspended revenue-sharing entirely.

Even so, Rotundo said, lawmakers are dedicated to providing for Maine’s anti-drug efforts.

“The federal government has a history of funding MDEA at the last minute,” she said Friday. “We felt confident that if the federal government doesn’t come up with that money, we would be able to come back together with a supplemental budget for (fiscal year) 2015 that would fund MDEA.”

LePage said details about how he would work to help local police and what specific legislation he might propose in 2014 would be released as his administration worked them out.

He said Friday’s meeting with police was the first step in determining the scope of the problems and what needs to be done next.

Newborns pay price as opiate addiction rises in Maine

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