2017-02-09 / Editorial

Opioids are the real crisis

Beyond the Headlines
by Sen. Justin Chenette

Questions around the implementation of the new recreational marijuana law have sucked a lot of air out of a lot of rooms in Augusta, and in the news, for good reason. Bringing something out of the shadowy black market and into the light of day is a tricky thing.

There was a lot of fanfare in late January when the Legislature unanimously approved a bill to address major loopholes in the citizen-approved law to legalize recreational marijuana.

We addressed a drafting error in the referendum language that would have allowed children to use and possess marijuana or marijuana products; 21 and older was the intent of the voters and we took action to make sure the law reflected that. We clarified where adults could use recreational pot, to ensure people wouldn’t be lighting up while they cruised down Interstate 95. And we addressed unanswered questions about just how much extremely potent marijuana concentrate an individual could reasonably possess for personal use.

It was critical to address those issues before Jan. 30, when the legalization law took effect, and I’m glad the Legislature did its job and that the governor signed the bill, even if he pounded his fist and complained as he did it.

Moving forward, the newly formed Select Committee on Marijuana Legalization Implementation will be fielding the nearly 50 bills related to marijuana along with clarifications needed around a regulatory framework for business licensing, taxation and personal use.

However, the real drug crisis isn’t pot. It’s the opioid addiction epidemic that is killing Mainers literally every single day.

Here’s a sobering fact: The attorney general just released a grisly new set of data about the opioid crisis in Maine, showing that the influx of fentanyl has contributed to a 39 percent increase in the total number of drug overdose deaths in Maine in 2016 as compared to 2015. In 2015 there were 272 deaths due to a drug overdose. That figure jumped to 378 deaths in 2016.

A Mainer is dying every single day from drug overdose. On some days, more than one. This is a public health crisis unseen since the AIDS epidemic. There isn’t anything that should be more pressing than stemming the drugs being trafficked into our state and assist those faced with the ravages of addiction get back on their feet.

Solving this problem is going to require a balanced approach that involves evidence based treatment, education, prevention, drug courts, and law enforcement. But like most of the problems facing our state, Augusta cannot solve this problem alone.

All of us were inspired by the Operation: Hope project in Scarborough, where law enforcement officers partnered with treatment providers to diverge low-level drug offenders toward treatment, not jail. We need to support innovative local efforts to combat the drug crisis.

We need to provide incentives for local communities to make decisions about what initiatives and efforts would best serve area residents. I have a bill that would encourage counties to take the lead by matching their efforts, dollar to dollar, with a new state grant. By providing matching grants to county-level efforts, we will spur the right kind of treatment based on the needs of a particular area. This could mean detox, long-term residential, medication assisted or other evidence-based treatment modalities implemented right where the help is needed most.

York County has taken the lead in developing a plan to convert a building on the same land as the county jail into a treatment facility. This project will end up saving taxpayers money, by number one using existing structures, and number two getting folks healthy rather than just locking them up. My bill, An Act to Create a County Jail Drug Rehabilitation and Treatment Grant Program, will aim to create a grant for counties to apply for to help turn their county-based drug treatment solutions into reality. Since York County already has a proposal on the table, we are poised to be the first to take advantage of this new grant if it’s passed by my colleagues in the Legislature.

Augusta needs to do everything it can to help Mainers get well, and to reverse the trend of overdose deaths. My bill alone won’t solve the crisis. But it will partner the state with communities determined to make a difference. I can think of no higher calling for state government than saving Mainer’s lives.

Justin Chenette is serving his first term as the youngest senator in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton. He previously served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives. Outside the Legislature, he is owner of Chenette Media LLC, a multimedia public relations company, and is the president/ CEO of the Saco Bay Center of Civic Engagement, a 501c3 nonprofit service organization.

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