With all due respect to Judge Wathen — and other thoughts

The vortex created by the end of the worst election cycle in my lifetime is swirling with all sorts of storylines. So much news, so many thoughts:

Spit-take of the week

I posted my last post in the wee hours of the morning to see if I could prompt a few coffee/tea spit-takes for readers as they started their day. I was going for shockingly funny when I raised the idea of smoking a joint with the governor, but Maine DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew outdid me this week.

When I heard the department was providing funds for medication-assisted addiction treatment for the uninsured on waiting lists, I was glad I hadn’t just taken a sip of my tea. I would have sprayed it all over my steering wheel and windshield. Not in a shockingly amused way, but in a positively-shocked-about-the-shockingly-positive way.

That’s great news coming from the LePage administration, and one hopes more will follow.

Like increased funding for a higher caliber of cognitive therapy to accompany the medicated-assisted treatment. I’ve heard more than one methadone client say that more treatment specific to changing thinking and behaviors would be helpful. These folks no better than anyone that the medication and a default group therapy session aren’t always enough for significant, long-term change.

And, it’s certainly not enough to help everyone move toward eventual cessation in the medication part of their treatment.

The recount is over, and hopefully rewriting time has begun

The groups leading the opposition to the recreational marijuana referendum question, held a press conference Tuesday  They urged lawmakers to make changes to the extensive legislation that accompanied the simple yes or no question.

A variety of concerns abound — relating to protecting children, penalties for youth possession, and penalties for sales to youth. Other opponents have raised concerns about the market structure established in the legislation and whether it’s in Maine’s economic and health best interests.

I’m optimistic. I hope that the legislature has been listening to the concerns and is ready to act in a bipartisan way to draft legislation better suited to Mainers’ needs. The justifications for doing so are numerous, including the fact that 2/3’s of Maine towns voted against Question 1, and were it not for the city of Portland, the measure would have failed. 

Attorney General Janet Mills has drafted legislation that would create a Cannabis Commission to make recommendations regarding the implementation of a recreational marijuana market. She’s suggesting that a variety of stakeholders be represented, and I think such a commission could be a good thing if members are chosen carefully.

At least one member should have longstanding knowledge of Maine’s marijuana market, like Donny Christen. Or Glenn Lewis. Or Hillary Lister. Having covered the issue extensively, I found that knowledge to be seriously lacking in the discourse. The medical marijuana community should also be adequately represented.

Further, the commission should include a small business market specialist, another perspective missing from the pre-election debate. If done right, a predominantly small business-driven recreational marijuana market could be the beginning of the economic diversification so desperately needed to start recovering from manufacturing job losses.

A small business-driven market developed with mostly Maine capital will not only be an economic boon, but it’s a market we can control ourselves with the profits staying here in Maine. This market is exactly what our struggling rural communities need.

If developed incorrectly, lawmakers can rest assured that the black market will continue to thrive because that’s the Mainer way. I was able to access medical marijuana long before there was such a program due to the strength of the black market and Mainers’ knack for growing high quality marijuana.

Maine’s mental health system

I respect and admire Judge Wathen, former Maine chief justice and longstanding courtmaster overseeing compliance with the decades-old AMHI consent decree. I know him personally, and he’s a highly intelligent, honorable man who has carried the immense burden of championing compliance for far longer than most public servants would find tolerable.

Daniel Wathen   BDN file photo

Daniel Wathen BDN file photo

I don’t know how he’s done it.

I have a slightly different perspective than Wathen’s, though, when it comes to the extent to which the state is in compliance with the consent decree, especially regarding community services. This perspective isn’t to question the integrity or validity of the information presented in Wathen’s most recent progress report, but it is to question whether all the relevant measures are being considered.

I think my perspective comes from being a person in recovery with mental illness. That status makes me worry about things like whether we’re tracking how many of the people dying from overdoses had untreated or under-treated mental health issues.

I worry that we now incarcerate as many mentally ill people as we formerly hospitalized. That fact only includes the mentally ill inmates jail administrators know about because there is no system-wide measure nor is there any guarantee that all are identified/diagnosed upon incarceration.

I worry because we just had a mentally ill youth commit suicide while in juvenile detention, and homeless mentally ill can be found in shelters, soup kitchens, warming centers and encampments all over the state.

Those darker realities don’t sing of the system’s success post-consent decree, nor are they newly arising measures for which we can hold the LePage administration singularly to blame. The responsibility spans decades of governance and crosses the private and public sectors, some even belonging to average taxpayers.

Try as I might, I can’t see the numbers in the medical examiner’s office or in jail cells as acceptable outcomes for a mental health system that is “challenged, but getting better.” As harsh as it sounds, those outcomes are representative of a system that is still failing, it’s just that it’s easy to ignore the failures when we don’t measure them.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

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