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Politics

National Guard's Role Would Be Limited in LePage's War on Drugs

AUGUSTA, Maine — Since summer, Gov. Paul LePage has been vowing to use the Maine National Guard to combat what he has called "drug terrorism" and a "drug crisis." While the Guard is already very much involved in efforts to interdict drugs coming into the state and to help police arrest dealers, the governor's powers to expand that role are limited by both state and federal law.

When the LePage appeared before the Appropriations Committee this week to ask for more drug agents, prosecutors and judges to combat the drug crisis, he repeated his commitment: Unless the Legislature approves funding for more drug agents, drug prosecutors and judges, he would call up the National Guard to fill the gap.

"The governor can call up the National Guard, and all of the officers of the National Guard are automatically law enforcement officers," LePage says. "I will call out the officers of the National Guard. And I will call out as many as the MDEA and the state police tell me we need."

The Guard is already involved. It operates a counterdrug task force with analysts in every office of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, helping to support cases. Just this week an additional analyst was assigned to the Maine Information and Analysis Center overseen by the state police that coordinates information and intelligence on drug crimes throughout the state.

Lt. Col. Darryl Lyon, who commands the task force, says the Guard will do what it can to help. But he says military lawyers are assigned by the Office of the Judge Advocate General to ensure that the Guard does not act as police.

"We work very closely with our JAG officers here and make sure what we are doing is not in violation of any rules, laws or regulations," Lyon says. "That is a delicate balance."

And Maine Attorney General Janet Mills says that both federal and state law greatly restrict the use of the Guard in enforcing criminal laws.

"Short of massive insurrection in the state I don't believe that the governor has the authority to call in the National Guard and turn them into police officers with arrest powers," she says. "And even then it would be challenging, legally challenging … and I think he knows that."

Mills says the National Guard's support role has been very helpful in combating the drug crisis, and she expects that will continue. She is part of a group that's working on a broad set of recommendations for tackling the drug crisis, which she says will likely include enhanced law enforcement as well as education, prevention and treatment.