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As Heroin Addiction Grows, Maine Focuses On Drug Enforcement


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Like so many other states, Maine is in the grip of an opiate epidemic. Other states have expanded drug treatment as part of the response. Maine has not. There are fewer treatment options than just a few years ago. The Republican Governor Paul LePage is pursuing instead a drug-enforcement strategy. Maine Public Radio's Susan Sharon reports.

SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: A major blow came in May when one of Maine's largest treatment providers announced it was closing. Mercy Recovery Center placed much of the blame on cuts in state funding. There was already a shortage of long-term residential treatment beds. And then last week, a methadone clinic in southern Maine also announced it was shutting its doors.

For those who want to safely get off heroin, the first step toward recovery is often detox, if you can get in.

LAUREN WERT: Yesterday we had someone count, and we had turned away 113 people this month because the program was full.

SHARON: Lauren Wert is the director of nursing at Milestone Foundation in Portland. This is Maine's largest city, the epicenter of the heroin crisis, and Milestone is the only residential detox around. It has just 16 beds available for three- to seven-day stays. At the small nurses station, Wert says she and her staff gently inform a steady stream of callers that they can't help them out.

WERT: Oftentimes people cry. They're asking questions like, where else do we go? What do I do? He feels like he's going to die.

SHARON: Wert says there used to be places to refer clients, but now all the staff can say is, I'm so sorry.

MARY DOWD: It's frustrating not to be able to get people services who desperately want it.

SHARON: Dr. Mary Dowd, medical director for Milestone, says the challenge is that most heroin addicts can't get sober without replacement medications, like methadone and Suboxone. At a roundtable discussion in Maine this week, U.S. Drug Control Policy director Michael Botticelli said, increasing access to them in Maine and elsewhere is essential because they work.

MICHAEL BOTTICELLI: People on medication-assisted treatment stay in treatment and they don't die and they don't get infectious diseases as a result of their injection drug-use issues.

SHARON: But in Maine there are long waiting lists for methadone and Suboxone, even for those who have insurance or money to pay for treatment out-of-pocket. For those who don't, Dowd says the only other options are the ER, jail or to try to score a short-term stay at Milestone.

DOWD: And it's not treatment; it's detox. They get the drugs out of their system, but then they don't get treatments. So they have to keep coming back and back and back.

ERIC BREWER: I've probably been here 10 times in the last six months probably.

SHARON: Eric Brewer is 37 years old. He is a longtime heroin addict who has spent time in prison on a drug trafficking conviction. He says he stayed sober for more than five years, but eventually relapsed and wound up at Milestone.

BREWER: Luckily this time, things fell into place for me, and I have someone who volunteered to pay for my first month in a sober house.

SHARON: Brewer has no insurance and no money to pay for long-term residential treatment, and he's hardly alone. Two years ago the state dropped hundreds of single adults from state Medicaid rolls. Under the leadership of Republican Governor Paul LePage, Maine refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and set caps on the length of time Medicaid patients receive drug treatment. Dr. Vijay Amarendran oversees methadone and Suboxone services at Acadia Hospital in Bangor.

VIJAY AMARENDRAN: We need to provide more insurance coverage for people, not less insurance coverage. Clearly, that doesn't make sense.

SHARON: Treatment providers and law enforcement personnel told director Botticelli that what they really need is more federal funding for treatment and recovery. Governor LePage says he's satisfied with the $72 million spent on drug treatment in the state. What concerns him more, he says, is how little is spent on drug enforcement. He's frustrated that Democratic lawmakers have not agreed to hire more drug agents. In a recent radio address, he proposed using the Maine Army National Guard for that purpose.


PAUL LEPAGE: We must provide solutions on how to disrupt the drug supply and hunt down the traffickers.

SHARON: Critics say that's a misguided strategy at a time when members of law enforcement are confronting heroin addicts overdosing on the side of the road. We can take them to the hospitals, said one small-town police sergeant, but after a couple of days they get released to the streets and do it again because there's nowhere else for them to go. For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deputy News Director Susan Sharon is a reporter and editor whose on-air career in public radio began as a student at the University of Montana. Early on, she also worked in commercial television doing a variety of jobs. Susan first came to Maine Public Radio as a State House reporter whose reporting focused on politics, labor and the environment. More recently she's been covering corrections, social justice and human interest stories. Her work, which has been recognized by SPJ, SEJ, PRNDI and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, has taken her all around the state — deep into the woods, to remote lakes and ponds, to farms and factories and to the Maine State Prison. Over the past two decades, she's contributed more than 100 stories to NPR.