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LePage tries to connect Gov. Mills' policies to increased crime and drug use

Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage holds a press conference near the recently drained duck pond at Deering Oaks Park in Portland. He described Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ approach to the drug epidemic as fueling crime.
Steve Mistler
Maine Public
Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage holds a press conference near the recently drained duck pond at Deering Oaks Park in Portland. He described Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ approach to the drug epidemic as fueling crime.

Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage tried to connect Democratic Gov. Janet Mills — his rival in November — to conservative claims that the federal government is using taxpayer funds to distribute free pipes to smoke crack and methamphetamine. While the broader assertion against the Biden Administration has previously been refuted, LePage's claims also illustrate the stark differences in how each would approach substance abuse disorder as a public health issue.

LePage's press event on Wednesday was set against Portland's Deering Oaks Park and the duck pond that city police recently asked to be drained so it could investigate a recent shooting.

From there — and in the foreground of a recently cleared encampment of unhoused people —LePage launched a series of accusations against his political rival, calling her approach to the opioid epidemic a failure and blaming her for a spike in violent crime in the state's largest city.

"Janet Mills is fueling the crime and drugs crisis in Maine," he said.

LePage proceeded to claim that the Mills administration is directing people with substance abuse disorder to organizations that are providing free drug paraphernalia.

"Janet Mills is using taxpayer money to send people to places where they can get free crack pipes," he said. "This is outrageous. For most Mainers, this is insane."

The former governor's claim is anchored in a story by The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website that recently claimed that one of its reporters obtained crack pipes at the Sanford location of the harm reduction organization Maine Access Points.

The organization is in line to receive a portion of a $1.2 million federal grant that was awarded by the Biden Administration this summer to assist with state substance abuse efforts and it's one of the groups that the state recommends as a resource for people suffering from substance abuse disorder.

While the Beacon reported that Maine Access Points has yet to receive the federal funds — and that the pipes were provided separately from the so-called safe smoking kits allowed under the federal grant program — LePage said the state should not be directing people with substance abuse disorder to organizations that provide drug paraphernalia.

"I understand the need to try and help people recover from addiction," he said. "However, the tactics of these organizations are concerning. I do not support handing out crack pipes and drug kits by organizations receiving taxpayer funding."

"What I saw today was that he (LePage) has not changed and he does not care about my community," says Courtney Allen, director of the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project.

Courtney Allen, director of the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project, says she wanted to believe the former governor had changed his approach to substance abuse disorder when he announced a bid for a third, non-consecutive term last year.

But Allen, who herself is in recovery, says she saw a local politician channeling national rhetoric to attack the harm reduction strategy from which she's benefitted.

"He does not care whether or not my friends or dying on the streets, he's using them as backdrops to his press conferences so that he can get hits in the media," she said.

Harm reduction is a treatment strategy that aims to keep people alive while they're using drugs, and includes the provision of sterilized needles to prevent the transmission of disease or access to the overdose reversal drug Naloxone.

"They keep people alive. They reduce the risk of the transmission of hepatitis and HIV in our communities. And they act as an access point for treatment and recovery support services," Allen said.

Allen says those type of services, as well as medication-assisted treatment, kept her and her unborn son alive when she was 19 and using heroin.

She has since gone to graduate school and is currently serving on the Augusta City Council.

Allen also recalled how LePage vetoed several proposals to expand access to Naloxone, the overdose reversal drug.

"That's blood on your hands," she said. "I cannot imagine a Maine today on the frontlines of the opiate crisis without the access … that we have to Naloxone."

LePage was roundly criticized for declaring in 2016 that Naloxone merely "extends lives" and he stood by that position Wednesday while criticizing Mills' focus on harm reduction policies.

"I am hostile to it because I look at Narcan as a method sustaining life and extending life," he said. "I don't see it as a way of fixing the problem."

LePage went on to say that he has a specific problem with taxpayer-funded Naloxone and that people who require it should have to pay for it if they're revived more than once or twice.

Courtney Allen, with the Maine Recovery Access Project, said the governor's comments were inhumane.

"You're literally talking about somebody on the ground, their face is blue and they can't breathe and we're going to be asking them for their checkbook?" she said.

Beyond his criticism of the Mills administration's harm reduction strategies, LePage's broader point was that his opponent's approach isn't working.

He noted the record 626 overdose deaths in Maine 2021, a grim statistic and a record in the fight against opioids.

In 2020, the second year of Mills' first term, Maine had the ninth-highest drug death rate in the country for every 100,000 residents.

Maine had the eighth-highest rate in 2017 and the 10th-highest rate in 2016 when LePage was in office and pursuing a law enforcement-centric approach.

Lindsay Crete, a spokesperson for the governor, said in a statement that Mills has implanted “evidence-based” practices to fight the opioid epidemic.

“The State of Maine provides funding to organizations that practice proven harm reduction services, including certified syringe exchange programs, which is an evidence-based harm reduction strategy that is strongly endorsed by the American Medical Association,” Crete said. ”As a result of the Governor’s efforts, in particular the distribution of naloxone, today, 93 percent of people in Maine who experience an overdose survive. The Governor believes that every life is worth saving and her approach is to invest in prevention, to keep Maine people with substance use disorders alive, and to provide them with treatment options that can put them on the long-term path to recovery.”

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.