AUGUSTA – During a press briefing on Tuesday, Senate Republicans discussed the rising drug overdose epidemic in Maine. According to the Maine Drug Data Hub, a collaboration between the state and University of Maine that tracks fatal and nonfatal overdoses in Maine, last year saw a record 10,110 overdoses across the state of which 716 were fatal.
“It’s a devastation that has impacted every single family,” said Assistant Senate Republican Leader Lisa Keim, R-Oxford. “Each one of us feels it so deeply as we look at the policy ways to combat this. We do so recognizing the pain that’s behind this issue for so many Mainers.”
Keim referred to news over the weekend where police said the amount of fentanyl seized during a recent drug bust was enough to kill the entire population of Portland. She outlined a three-pronged approach Republicans are using to craft legislation to combat the issue: prevention, treatment and enforcement.
“Since 2017, fatal overdoses in Maine have risen by more than 71%, mostly due to fentanyl,” she said. “Prevention is more important now than it has ever been.”
Sen James Libby, R-Cumberland, said there’s common agreement by most people that education is a critical part of combatting drug overdoses and deaths. According to him, the loss of effective educational initiatives such as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) Program has led to a void that emphasizes treatment over education and enforcement.
“Especially with the enforcement aspect, a lot of that has been put on the backburner,” he said. “What are the enforcement mechanisms and are there any consequences? Those parts of education seem to have taken a backseat and we’d like to see some of that come back.”
Citing DARE’s principles of teaching good decision-making skills, empowering students to respect others and lead lives free from violence and substance abuse, he said the goals really haven’t changed.
“We don’t have to rewrite the goals – they’re right there,” he said. “That mission and vision is exactly what we need to think about.”
For Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Washington, Maine’s current pace that will surpass last year’s record in overdoses and deaths means more preventative measures must be deployed along with effective treatment and recovery options. Nearly 1,600 overdoses and almost a hundred deaths have already been suspected or confirmed so far this year.
“With January and February already running higher compared to last year for both fatal and total overdoses, 2023 may be the deadliest year yet,” she said, adding 77% of the deaths tracked thus far this year involved fentanyl. “Part of harm reduction is we have got to find the resources to be able to help these folks recover from this demon.”
In the most poignant part of the press briefing, Sen. Brad Farrin, R-Somerset, emphasized the deadly figures from last year, which included his 26-year-old daughter.
“As many of you know, one of them was my daughter, Haley, on the 27th of July,” he said. “This epidemic touches from northern Maine to southern Maine, to the coast, to the mountains. It knows no social-economic boundaries. No age boundaries. It’s touching everybody in the State of Maine.”
Outlining the final element of Senate Republicans’ three-part plan regarding enforcement, Farrin said his bill, LD 986, would increase penalties for fentanyl trafficking. The legislation just had a work session in the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Monday, and the committee tabled it for now.
“We’ve all got to step outside our comfort zones. I’ve had to on the treatment piece,” he said. “Folks who think their way is the only way – there is not a silver bullet that is going to take us out of this epidemic.”
Citing the need to focus on the loss of an average of two Mainers a day to fatal overdoses, he challenged both the media and state government to bring more attention to the problem to find solutions. “We’ve got to do a better job,” he said.