In an inspiring display of unity, the Maine House and Senate both unanimously passed the $3.7 million addiction bill which was then quickly signed by Governor Paul Lepage. Within a couple of short hours, Maine had adopted a comprehensive, bi-partisan bill to address the increasingly dire addiction epidemic in Maine. One of the questions that remained before passage was the funding mechanism. An amendment changed the funding source to the Maine Medical Use of Marijuana Fund. This is a fund that collects the licensing fees from dispensaries and care givers. Now that the bill has passed, let’s take stock on what this means and what it doesn’t mean for Maine’s path forward in addressing addiction.
One significant win is that the recent increased attention to addiction has lead to tangible policy action. I have been in the substance use disorder field as a prevention specialist for a decade now. The reality is Maine’s issues with substance use disorders and the impact on health is not a new development. Mainers have been overdosing and dying long before the media spotlight. Young people were having their academic futures derailed and ruined by drugs. All the while, federal and state resources for prevention and treatment were dwindling. Thanks, in large part, to the continued focus from Maine media over the past several months, lawmakers saw the urgent need to act, and they did act.
The other big win here is the, eventual, recognition that our approach to addiction had to be comprehensive. What seemed to start as a political either/or treatment vs law enforcement debate, finally (mostly) came around to the acknowledgement that there is no, one silver bullet. We have to increase access to treatment for all Mainers affected by substance use disorders while also continuing to keep our young people and communities safe. There is now a growing, common understanding that our approach needs to be a four-legged stool; law enforcement, prevention, treatment, and recovery.
What this bill passing doesn’t mean. Yes, fee revenues from the already existing medical marijuana program are providing a helpful source of funds for this initiative. As I’ve written in the past, I have significant issues with Maine’s medical marijuana program, including the many loopholes and deficits in oversight. However, when the political process hands you lemons, might as well make some lemonade. This doesn’t mean Maine needs more lemons, it is not an argument for legalizing marijuana. The social and human costs that would come with legalization would outweigh the little bit of revenues we might be able to use towards addressing addiction. Indeed, it would only serve to worsen our addiction issues as the access and availability of marijuana to youth is markedly increased.
More importantly, the passage of this bill doesn’t mean we are done, not by a long shot. This has been recognized and repeated in public by Maine lawmakers and was stated very clearly by Governor LePage. In a statement issued shortly after signing the bill he says:
“To be clear, this bill is just the first step in a process that needs a much more comprehensive approach.”
Indeed, this isn’t a public health issue that will be fully addressed by the end of this legislative session. The reality is that this must remain a top issue for the Legislature we will be electing this Fall. It will also have to be the top issue for the next Governor that is elected in 2018. We need to have the courage to be patient and persistent.
There is still a lot of work left to be done and several other key areas we need to address. From my experience we still have to focus on the following:
- Increasing the utilization of evidence-based prevention and education in schools and other youth settings, including adopting universal prevention.
- Continuing to build recovery supports in communities across Maine.
- Addressing language, policies, and systems that intentionally or unintentionally create stigma for Mainers with substance use disorders.
- Supporting people in recovery in finding paths to employment and/or education.
- Continuing to identify and fill gaps in treatment.
The bill that was passed Tuesday is an excellent and promising first step. There are more bills coming forward this session to further address the addiction epidemic. Let us hope the trend continues to move Maine forward and helping more of our citizens onto a path of health and wellness.