By Chris Holm
For a blog called Maine Crime Writers, we talk very little about Maine crime. That’s understandable, I suppose. For one thing, there’s damn little of it, per capita. For another, most of us are here because we love the state, and are therefore disinclined to shine a light on its shortcomings. But last week, it seemed Maine crime was all anybody was talking about.
At a recent town hall meeting, Governor LePage described Maine’s heroin problem thusly:
“These are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty… these types of guys… they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home. Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road.”
LePage’s comments were—by any measure—racist and insulting, and the media’s response was swift. Rachel Maddow and The Daily Show had their fun. Presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle weighed in. A local musician remixed his remarks. A novelty Twitter account parodied them. A second-rate lad-mag hack penned the hastiest of hot takes wondering if the nation would be better off selling our great state to Denmark for a tidy profit.
I’m not here to add fuel to the flames or spark a political discussion in the comment section. In fact, although I found his statements wrongheaded and offensive, I think the governor’s frustration over Maine’s drug problem is sincere, if misplaced. His comments touched on a common misconception among Mainers: namely, that crime (and, in specific, drug crime) is something imported by people From Away.
The fact is, our heroin problem has its roots in prescription opiate abuse, and the recent crackdown on same. This summer, the Washington Post ran a devastating long read about Maine’s heroin epidemic, centering on one well-to-do Falmouth family whose two sons overdosed within twenty-four hours of each other:
They were kids who had it made, at least on paper… They had cars, money and plenty of independence, like many teens in Falmouth, a town of 11,000, a place of privilege just across a short bridge from Portland, the state’s largest city.
It’s a place now ravaged by heroin—four overdoses, two of them fatal, in the past 10 months, in a town more accustomed to nothing of the kind. Maine is at the burning core of a nationwide heroin epidemic, the perverse outcome of a well-intentioned drive to save Americans from the last drug craze, a widespread hunger for heroin’s chemical cousin, prescription opiate pills such as Oxycontin.
Heroin—now cheap, plentiful and more potent than ever—is killing people at record rates. Across the nation, deaths from heroin overdoses nearly quadrupled in the decade ending in 2013, according to a new analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Maine, deaths from heroin overdoses ballooned from seven in 2010 to 57 last year. Two-thirds of the victims were, like David, adults in their 20s and 30s. In 2012, heroin accounted for 8 percent of the caseload for Maine’s Drug Crimes Task Force; last year, it jumped to 32 percent. In Portland, the number of addicts served by the needle exchange nearly doubled in just two years. Today in Maine, a single tablet of Oxycontin often costs $50; addicts can find a single-dose packet of heroin for as little as $10.
I urge you all to read the whole piece if you have a chance. It might just change your perspective on the matter.
To give the governor some small measure of credit, I understand the temptation to see Maine’s drug problem as the result of some easily demonized Other that can be defeated (although I find it troubling that his idea of Other is ‘brown people from New York and Connecticut’), but we’ll never solve it thinking like that.
The problem is us—and the solution is us, too.
We need to expand programs like this one that get addicts into recovery, rather than locking them up or tossing them back onto the street. We need to pressure state lawmakers to approve funds for new rehab facilities. We need to treat drug users with compassion, not hostility.
Oh, and if any of you decide you need a new target for your hostility, I recommend the aforementioned lad-mag hack. Maybe, as this hilarious response to his piece suggests, we can sell him to Denmark for a tidy profit.
I will be reading your blog regularly.
Kind of you to say, Sally!
Well said, Chris, and important to say.
I believe the governor is wrong-headed in his enforcement-heavy (only?) approach, which assumes the answer is stemming the flow of drugs up interstate 95. As anyone who has had even the most rudimentary understanding of addiction knows, that will not solve the problem. A lot of people are ill–really, really sick in the case of people whose addiction is to opiates–and they can’t simply walk away from their addiction. They need treatment and support from their families and friends, among other things, to tear themselves free of the opiates (or whatever else their bodies desperately crave) that has them in a vise grip.
The problem also is bound up with the economy. Yes, the Falmouth story in the WP was shocking because it was about well, Falmouth. But the counties where unemployment is high are home to a disproportionate number of young people with serious addiction problems, and the impact of their addiction radiates outward in crime (burglary, theft, domestic violence) that has an enormous impact.
It cannot be (only) about stopping Shifty and Smoothie. An effective response also requires establishing lifelines to those individuals (and their families) where addiction is taking a toll, and offering them real, enduring support and alternatives. It won’t be cheap. But doing things the right way never is.
Nice job, Chris.
You’re absolutely right, Brenda. I shared the WP piece because it effectively counters the governor’s comments, but with reservations. Too often, drug crime is treated as a scourge to be cracked down upon until it touches the upper classes, at which point those in power finally muster some compassion for its victims — and that piece could be seen as reinforcing that behavior.
That’s why I highlighted the PPD’s efforts to create a path to treatment. There are, in fact, similar programs run by several other Maine PDs. The law enforcement community deserves a lot of credit for the foresight and compassion such programs require. These aren’t hippie-dippy activists lobbying for treatment; they’re the men and women on the front lines of the so-called War on Drugs. Unfortunately, these programs are almost entirely unfunded. PPD’s, for example, runs on drug forfeiture money.
To your point about the cycles of violence and crime among the poverty-stricken, the Boston Globe ran a heart-wrenching story a few months ago that’s well worth reading: http://apps.bostonglobe.com/graphics/2015/11/strider/?p1=BGMenu_Article
To clarify: the PPD’s program is intended to create a path to treatment for addicts who can’t afford, or otherwise have no access to, rehab services. And Governor LePage has threatened to veto legislation that funds such programs. “Enforcement-only” indeed.
Chris,If this commentary is how you see the Governor’s courage in dealing with Maine’s horrific drug problem (calling him racist amd making it clear that you can’t stand him) then I’m out of here and will unsubscribe from Maine Crime Writers.
I think everyone should be free to express their opinions in this forum and others are free to counter them if they disagree. I’d rather here a reasoned counterpoint to Chris than see you pick up and walk away because you disagree with him.
I’m sorry you feel that way, Mary. I understand that this is a polarizing topic, and I tried to write about it with balance and respect. If you’ll note, I said the governor’s COMMENTS were racist and insulting, not the governor himself. For the record, he has since apologized, which would indicate he (or his administration) agrees that his words were offensive. And I afforded him the respect of his office at every turn. I used his title. I didn’t call him names. In fact, I wrote this piece in part because I thought a lot of people made a circus of his comments, and failed to acknowledge the fact that they were borne of a sincere interest to rid the state of heroin. I simply feel that his approach ignores the fact that, yes, the drugs themselves come from out of state, but the demand is home-grown.
I would urge you not to unsubscribe, since my views are my own, and do not represent the group as a whole. You could easily skip my posts when they come around, which is but once a month. But if you are, in fact, a regular reader, I wonder where your outrage was when John shared the “Barack’s Bullshit Bingo” card on his most recent post (as is, of course, his right). It would seem your respect for public office holders is limited to one side of the aisle.
I actually skewered the amateurish and totally unfunny “lad mag hack” on my blog last week… http://www.maureenmilliken.com/2016/01/satire-racism-and-do-we-really-need-maine-writers-choices-affect-their-message/
Ha! Terrific post, Maureen!
What a terrific blog, Chris. I totally agree. Thanks for saying it!
Thanks for a thoughtful and unbiased post, Chris, and for including so many links so that readers can read for themselves what has been written elsewhere about this complex and disturbing issue. Back in the beginning, we chose the subtitle “writing and living in the great state of Maine” for this group blog precisely because we wanted to be able to talk about any and all aspects of living here. Your post fits right in with that goal.
I was thinking about Ayla Reynolds yesterday, Chris. We may not write about crime a lot (except in our daily work) but we think about it all the time. We read the stories and we wonder about the people and what makes things happen and how it could be different. Thanks for this very thoughtful piece.
Truthfully, I wouldn’t want MCW to focus solely on Maine crime. I like not knowing, day-to-day, what the topic will be. But as I stared at my blinking cursor last week and wondered what to write, this topic kept pushing to the fore… and I’m just naive, hubristic, and deluded enough to think the right words can help change hearts and minds.
Nothing “naive, hubristic, [or] deluded” in wanting to help people think about realistic solutions. Thanks for sharing so much valuable information, Chris. Those wanting to understand and, thus, solve problems will read widely on this topic and then act, either on their own or through their elected officials, to support the solutions they find most promising.
A fella can hope, LC. Thanks!
Also, allowing all first responders, including cops and firemen, to carry Narcan would go a long away in reducing the number of overdoses (I know this firsthand). Not just in Maine but the whole country.
God, yes. Thankfully, Maine’s first responders are now allowed to administer Narcan, and often do. But it’s worth noting our governor, who frequently decries our number of overdoses, strenuously objected to the law (which had broad bipartisan support), and only reluctantly allowed it to pass without his signature.
Chris, Thank you for writing about Maine’s heroin problem. Of course, it’s a problem all over the country. I’m a retired San Francisco probation officer. I worked daily with drug addicts for many, many years. From my experience, heroin is the most difficult addiction to overcome. Sadly, most of the people I saw, adults 18 and over, were not successful in their recovery efforts. And I saw hundreds of them try. Nothing, it seemed worked. After months of being clean, they almost always re-lapsed. There were some, who actually wanted to go to jail, because they knew they would clean up for awhile anyway. The women, generally became prostitutes in order to support their habit. The men, turned to burglary, robbery, theft, anything to get that daily cash. Yes, treatment must be considered and available to all that want it. I believe the biggest force for change is education at the high school, at least, level. Heroin is not a recreational drug. It can be a life sentence of misery and self loathing. My two cents.
You’re not wrong, Patricia. Heroin is hard to beat, and our best bet is keeping people off it to begin with. But it’s important to remember that our current epidemic is largely driven by prescription drug abuse. Maine addicts aren’t, by and large, rock star wannabes in love with the lifestyle; they’re people who were either overprescribed highly addictive painkillers or had easy access to them and no understanding of just how serious they were. We’ve gotten better about controlling those substances, but heroin is a cheap substitute that scratches the same itch. Sadly, there aren’t easy answers, and sadly I know all too well how often addiction treatment fails. But it’s clear that the alternative is failing, too. We need education, fair enforcement, and treatment to work in concert if we’re ever going to make headway.
Even though the Governors comments were somewhat insensitive, the reaction to his comments were a classic “Shoot the Messenger” response.
The Drug Situation is a forest fire buring out of control, with the drug criminals providing the fuel and the addicts providing the oxygen.
Once our society realizes that you need to lock up suppliers permanently 20 years or more with no chance of parole and put the addicts on State/Federal care until they are cured to a point that they are a productive members of society. (Job training, family training, Societal training) even if it takes years to accomplish.
Maybe then we can feel safe to live our lives without fear of the drug culture stealing and harming us day in and day out. This author knows first hand as we lost a beautiful grand-daughter to the drug culture.
Find ways to lock up the bad people forever, and help the victims to recover, at any cost.
I’m so sorry for your loss, Donald. While I agree that the media circus surrounding LePage’s remarks distract from the issue at hand (a point Bill Nemitz made well on CNN), I disagree that this was an instance of “kill the messenger.” The governor’s comments were a symptom of his myopia on this topic. His focus on enforcement alone — to the exclusion of dedicating any resources to treatment, despite bipartisan AND law enforcement support — effectively ensures that this fire will continue to have ample oxygen, to borrow your analogy. Your comment makes a distinction between “the bad people” and “the victims.” My concern is that the governor is blind to the latter.
For those who enjoy the humor of Al Diamon, he’s at it again in today’s Daily Bulldog with a blog that’s (sort of) related to this one. You can find it at
Be warned, some of you may find this in poor taste. That said, it’s far funnier (and more accurate) than the lad-mag hack’s piece about Maine.
You might want to take a look at the Angel program in Gloucester, MA as another option for dealing with opioids. They appear to be making progress in helping addicts interested in ending their addictions. I think it’s run by the police department.
I’m familiar with it, Anne, and they do appear to be making progress — although the science geek in me hastens to point out that the program is too new for us to have solid data to back that up. That said, two Maine PDs, Augusta and Paris, are considering implementing similar plans, and I’m all for it. We do, after all, have solid data to suggest our current catch-and-release strategy ain’t working.
If anyone else is curious about Gloucester’s Angel program and how it might work in Maine, here’s an article about exactly that from the Press Herald: http://www.pressherald.com/2015/09/13/can-gloucesters-radical-drug-crisis-model-for-maine/
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Love the read and the comments. Chilling