Maine Proposes $2.4M Plan to Fight Opiate Epidemic, Experts Not Impressed

By Zachary Siegel 01/08/16

Treatment professionals say lawmakers left out a key aspect of drug treatment—medication-assisted therapy.

Photo via Shutterstock

Uninformed lawmakers will continue to waste money unless they consult with the public health data, as lawmakers in Maine have demonstrated by pushing a plan to address Maine's opiate problem that experts say won't help much.

Addiction experts are up in arms over the proposed plan to stave off the devastating effects of widespread opiate use. The bipartisan $2.4 million measure proposes to hire more drug enforcement agents while dedicating more resources to treatment and recovery.

Experts are amazed that there were no funds allotted for what is empirically the most effective treatment for opioid dependence—that is, medication-assisted therapy (MAT), typically methadone and Suboxone.

Dr. Mark Publicker, a physician who specializes in addiction, called the plan damaging, according to the Bangor Daily News. “I’d give it a zero. I’d give it a D-minus,” he said.

Maine already spends $76 million per year on drug treatment and prevention. House Republicans have asked for an analysis of how those funds are being used before any more money is to be spent.

Of the extra $2.4 million made available, $1 million is dedicated to a 10-bed detox facility for uninsured opiate users. Most opiate overdose deaths occur when people leave detox or have recently withdrawn from the drug. It stands to reason this detox facility will not protect users from overdose, especially if there is no medication-assisted therapies.

Dr. Publicker stressed that the plan doesn't actually cover treatment since detox for only a few days is not treatment. “The critical point here is that detoxification itself plays no role in the treatment of opiate addiction,” Publicker told Bangor Daily News. Therefore, “We’re spending $1 million on a component of the disease that has absolutely no benefit.”

Publicker continued to emphasize the need for best practices, which the data suggest is medication-assisted therapy. A 2013 longitudinal study (1995-2009) in Baltimore, a city caught in a storm of heroin-related deaths, found that greater access to methadone and Suboxone "was associated with a reduction in heroin overdose deaths."

That Maine Lawmakers proposed a plan without consulting the data further argues the need for public health and harm reduction professionals to step in and take the reins.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.