AUGUSTA (WGME) – Tackling the opioid crisis in Maine has been — and remains — a top priority for Gov. Janet Mills.
Gordon Smith said he first started working with Mills on the state’s opioid crisis several years ago, when she was attorney general and he worked with the state’s medical association, becoming a natural fit for the new role she had in mind.
As the state’s first director of opioid response, Smith said the new governor’s focus is clear — that addiction is, first and foremost, a medical, not criminal, problem.
“People with substance use disorders are ill. They’re not criminals. Almost all of them, at some point in their journey, have violated one or more laws, but primarily they’re ill,” he said.
Smith said a big part of his job will be coordinating the governor’s efforts within government, law enforcement and the medical community. He said he already is talking not only with experts but with regular people who have lost loved ones to addiction.
“That average call is an hour. Because that’s not the kind of call you can cut short,” Smith said.
Among the governor’s new initiatives are getting medication-assisted therapy into Maine’s jails and prisons.
Smith said his office is studying a pioneering program in Rhode Island, where synthetic opioids like methadone are given to prisoners who need them to control their addiction.
Other efforts underway include getting opioid treatment into every hospital and emergency department in Maine by the end of the year and getting overdose reversal drugs out into communities.
“The first thing we did was buy 35,000 doses or Narcan and naloxone to get those out there and save lives. We can’t get people into recovery if they’re dead,” Smith said.
He said none of this is about getting soft on drug dealers but rather it is about giving a message of hope to those caught up in addiction and the families struggling to support them.
“They’ll do horrible, horrible things because it’s screwed up their brain. But over a period of time, particularly with medication, they can get better. And they can get their life back,” Smith said.
Mlls also created what she and her administration call the Prevention and Recovery Cabinet, where her commissioners work with Smith and the Maine attorney general on stemming the opioid epidemic.