If LePage and other politicians want to make a difference, have a summit with the dealers and addicts

Finally, our political leaders agree on something. Maine is facing an addiction epidemic. The agreement stops there as legislative leaders spar with Gov. Paul LePage over which branch has done the most to combat the epidemic, who should have say in what to do about it, and who should attend the governor’s upcoming drug summit.

LePage, Speaker of the House Mark Eves and Senate President Mike Thibodeau have corresponded with each other about who should and shouldn’t be included. Presently the invite list is for approved eyes only. All three letters are well intended and express sincere concern about the epidemic.

But all three letters also kind of reek of the power and personality plays that plagued recent legislative sessions. That’s disheartening. If elected officials can’t present a united front on this critical issue, what the heck will it take? Our leadership is like a dysfunctional family that can’t come together ever, even in the face of a crisis.

It doesn’t bode well for potential outcomes. And the track record of both branches on the issue doesn’t provide much by way of confidence building either. Keep in mind, this epidemic didn’t start yesterday.

All three gentlemen need to understand that Maine’s addiction epidemic is bigger than politics, power plays and control issues. LePage needs to offer transparency around the summit for it to have any credibility. And with all due respect to Eves and Thibodeau, I doubt they have much to contribute to the conversation that hasn’t already been heard.

If elected officials really want to know what to do about the heroin epidemic, they should be meeting at a variety of readily available locations around the state.

These locations, our jails and our state prison, are chock full of the people the treatment system did not catch. If you want to know what to do about heroin, the nature of the addiction, the supply side of the equation, ask the very people whose lives have been destroyed by it. They know the epidemic better than anyone.

Ask them, why opiates? Where did the heroin come from (not asking for names, but the nature of supply chains and what to look for)? What kept them from accessing treatment? What kept them from succeeding during previous periods of recovery? What will help them succeed when no longer incarcerated? What do they think the state needs to do to help addicts?

Granted not all incarcerated addicts and dealers will want to talk, and, of those that do, some may give flawed feedback. I would bet, however, that the majority of the information gathered would be more than helpful. An addict sitting in jail has nothing to lose and no agenda. And I’ve never met heroin addicts who don’t lament the thought of others ending up like them or express a desire to change outcomes for others, even if they can’t save themselves.

Heather Padgett, along with her mother Debi Padgett (left), prepares her daughters Kinsley and Kiley for a walk outside their home in Cincinnati, Ohio, July 16. Until she got clean last August, Heather was part of what the Centers for Disease Control has called a heroin epidemic -- a 100 percent rise in heroin addiction among Americans between 2002 and 2013. (Aaron P. Bernstein | Reuters)

Heather Padgett, along with her mother Debi Padgett (left), prepares her daughters Kinsley and Kiley for a walk outside their home in Cincinnati, Ohio, July 16. Until she got clean last August, Heather was part of what the Centers for Disease Control has called a heroin epidemic — a 100 percent rise in heroin addiction among Americans between 2002 and 2013. (Aaron P. Bernstein | Reuters)

I know from experience that in moments of candor, the addicts and the dealers themselves offer far greater insight than any room full of professionals, policymakers and bureaucrats. They are the ones that the professionals, the policymakers and the bureaucrats have failed to reach, and they are the ones who know why.

Then, while meeting with the incarcerated, elected officials could also get input from the corrections and law enforcement folks who, along with other first responders and family members, are truly on the frontline of this epidemic.

Sheriff Randall Liberty at Kennebec County Jail and participants in his CARA program would provide a fountain of information. Interviews with participants in our drug courts would be a good idea, too — those who are succeeding and those who fail. The children of addicts also have a unique, valuable view of the epidemic.

In his letter, Eves refers to the necessity of a comprehensive plan, and he’s right. Such a plan will require good information, the kind of information gathered in the trenches, though. Holding summits and developing plans without that information is just more of the same process that enabled the epidemic to become an epidemic in the first place.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.