The Republican governor set combating drug crimes as a high priority during his State of the State address in February.

The plan is estimated to cost $3 million.

“To me, this is not about money,” LePage said. “This is about our people.”

Flanked by law enforcement officers from around the state, LePage again detailed the high number of babies born drug-affected in Maine. He also criticized  the state’s methadone treatment clinics meant to help those addicted to painkiller medication and other opioid drugs such as heroin.

“The methadone clinics in the state of Maine are an absolute, dismal failure,” LePage said. He said the methadone should be provided in a clinical setting only, and Maine’s clinics were not doing that. 

He said he supported a proposal that would limit Medicaid-funded methadone treatment to six months, as opposed to the current two-year limit.

“I’m not here to say that eradicating the drug-trafficking trade is a silver bullet,” LePage said. “We still have the addiction efforts.”

He met Tuesday morning with a group of physicians to talk about Maine’s problem with prescription drug addiction, he said.

He said he intended to focus equally on the addiction side of the drug equation but did not offer any details saying only that he would work with Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew to establish what needs to be done and what the state’s approach should be.

“But what I’m saying is tougher law enforcement will help get the dealers and the traffickers off the street,” LePage said. “This is a full-blown business activity, and we’ve allowed it to go from a little bit of heroin for your buddy to a commercial enterprise. We need to break the commercial enterprise. We want to get the people who bring the poison into the state; we want to get them off the streets.”

He said those convicted of low-level drug crimes were not creating crowding issues in Maine jails.

Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson backed up LePage, saying her county’s jail had bed space and had closed down a pod recently because it didn’t have enough inmates.

But overcrowded jails would not be a reason to avoid prosecuting drug criminals, the governor said.

“That’s not adequate,” he said. “If we fill our jails and we still have more, we will talk to other states about housing them for us.”

Anderson and Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, said the bulk of crime in Maine was being driven by illegal drugs.

“You cannot reduce crime in the state of Maine without reducing the substances; it’s not possible,” Anderson said.

McKinney said no part of the state is “immune from drug-trafficking and its impact.” He said the crimes connected to drug-trafficking range from burglary to murder.

He said the MDEA’s role is one that other law enforcement agencies could not fully accomplish.  

“State, county, local and tribal departments simply do not have the personnel to assign full-time officers to a task force,” McKinney said. “The volume and the complexity of investigating drug crimes has increased.”

Also attending the governor’s press conference in support of his proposal was Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills. But some Democratic lawmakers said the governor’s plan doesn’t pay enough attention to treatment and recovery programs for addicts.

“There are Mainers who today are living drug-free lives, and the reason for that is the treatment required by the oversight of the drug court,” state Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said. “I am pleased to see more resources allocated to the drug courts. However, they are only half the answer.”

Haskell, the Senate’s assistant majority leader, said the drug courts’ mandate of intervention and treatment is working. “We simply are not going to arrest our way out of drug addiction.”

State Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, House chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said he didn’t take issue with bolstering court and law enforcement resources. But he disagreed with LePage’s overall philosophy of battling drug crimes.

“Where we part ways is he’s offering part of a solution,” said Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff. “Judges and prosecutors who don’t have the resources to intervene in the addiction cycle will only guarantee more arrests and more detentions at our correctional facilities, which are already under stress.”

Dion said he would seek a more “comprehensive drug policy that recognizes the value of law enforcement and public health intervention. If we don’t manage addiction we don’t change the equation.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine criticized LePage’s approach Tuesday, challenging him to prioritize and focus on diversion and treatment programs over more arrests.

“In Maine, drug arrests have gone up nearly 240 percent since the mid-1980s,” according to a release from the ACLU of Maine. “Yet despite the increase in enforcement, abuse has skyrocketed.”

The public will get a chance to weigh in on the governor’s proposal when it goes to a public hearing before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee later this month.

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