Sep. 28—Drug use is fueling increased crime in Maine cities and Gov. Janet Mills has made the problems worse, former Gov. Paul LePage said during a news conference in Portland on Wednesday.
"Crime in Portland is out of control," said LePage, addressing reporters in front of a duck pond in Portland's Deering Oaks park that police had drained on Sept. 7 in search of a weapon used in a killing. "The drug trade is driving people out of the city and destroying the way of life for too many Maine families. Janet Mills is fueling the crime and drug crisis in Maine."
Drug overdoses and overdose deaths in Maine have only increased since Mills took office, LePage said.
He criticized the Mills administration for increasing public funding to organizations that distribute drug kits to Mainers struggling with substance use disorder, provide medication-assisted treatment without adequate counseling and allow for multiple free injections of naloxone. Such "holistic" approaches are not working, LePage said. He recalled standing outside a methadone clinic and watching patients walk in, get their methadone and walk out in under seven minutes. Not much counseling going on there, he said.
"As a brother of siblings who struggle with substance abuse, I understand the need to try to help people recover from addiction," LePage said. "However, the tactics of these organizations are concerning."
Mills did not immediately respond to LePage's criticisms.
Democrats say LePage spent eight years trying to block efforts to address the opioid crisis. In a written statement released in response to LePage's news conference, Democrats say he vetoed bills to cut costs for less addictive opioids and fund treatment centers, nixed millions in federal funds for opioid treatment programs and refused to expand access to naloxone.
"Paul LePage put the safety of Maine people at risk," said Drew Gattine, chair of the Maine Democratic Party. "Governor Mills has spent her entire life fighting to make Maine's communities safer. No amount of scaremongering from Paul LePage can change that."
Since taking office, Mills has reversed many of LePage's public safety failures, Gattine said. She expanded access to naloxone and made a $50 million investment in affordable housing through the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan to help Maine's unhoused population.
When asked Wednesday about his harsh attitude toward Narcan, a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses, LePage said the first injection should be free. If the revived patient has enough money to buy drugs to overdose again, then LePage believes they can afford to pay for the second, third or fourth dose of naloxone they get that month.
When he was in office, LePage faced criticism for his opioid policies, especially during his second term, when the number of fatal overdoses began to climb. On Wednesday, he pointed to areas of his record he believes prevented the problem from being as bad as it is now, including an increase in investigators at the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, increases in Maine law enforcement pay, and adding photos to electronic benefits cards for those on welfare to prevent recipients from selling them to dealers for drugs.
LePage also touted a $150 million bond to create, among other things, a 200-bed detox facility at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, but he claims the Mills administration scrapped his plan and built a library, school, cafeteria and visitor center instead. Prison officials say the initial project was over budget and the new commissioner revised it to meet current needs, which, given that there are now empty beds in Maine prisons, isn't so much additional space as it is holistic treatment of all of a prisoner's needs, including treatment for substance use disorder.
If elected, LePage said he would create additional detox-specific beds in the Windham facility and work with Maine's drug courts to adopt a program that would allow those with substance use disorder who are convicted of nonviolent crimes to spend one night in jail and then enter the recovery and detox facility in Windham. Upon completion of that program, and a year of sobriety outside of prison, that person would have their criminal record expunged, LePage said, giving them a meaningful shot at a second chance.
LePage's news conference comes two weeks after the Republican candidate for Congress in the 1st District also held a news conference in Portland to highlight the rise in violence. Ed Thelander, who is challenging Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said Democrats were partly responsible. "Much of the blame for this rise in crime are the results of policies pushed by Rep. Pingree and her progressive colleagues in Washington," he said.
The park's pond has been drained since early this month after Walter Omal, a 31-year-old man from Portland, was shot Sept. 7 near a pair of park benches facing the pond close to the intersection of Park Avenue and State Street. He was rushed to the hospital and later died.
Amin Awes Mohamed, 38, of Boston, is charged with one count of murder and is being held without bail at Cumberland County Jail. An affidavit that could explain the evidence in the case has been sealed.
In their search for evidence, police ordered the park's pond drained on Sept. 7, and by the next afternoon, half a dozen investigators had put on waterproof gear and waded into the mud, using their feet, rakes, shovels and metal detectors to look for a weapon.
This story will be updated.