Janet Mills has an opportunity, and a mandate, during her second term to take a multifaceted approach to addressing substance use disorder.
Gov. Janet Mills listens to Maine Poet Laureate Julia Bouwsma in the Augusta Civic Center on Wednesday night after taking the oath of office for the second time. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Karyn Sporer is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maine. Robert W. Glover is an associate professor of political science and honors at the University of Maine. These are their views and do not express those of the University of Maine System or the University of Maine. Both are members of the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

Last week, Janet Mills was sworn in for her second term as governor of Maine. During her inaugural address, Mills spoke of hopefulness, compassion and community. But she also spoke of loss, acknowledging the many lives lost to preventable overdose. 

Maine has been devastated by the overdose crisis, with the ninth highest mortality rate in the country as of 2022. The most recent numbers show we are losing almost two Mainers per day, or 56 people per month, to overdose. 

Mills took important policy steps during her first four years in the Blaine House. She supported new prevention efforts meant to “stop the scourge of addiction before it begins,” increased access to treatment beds and funded mass distribution of Naloxone to all corners of the state.

During her first term, Mills also signed into law a number of bills that moved away from strictly punitive responses to substance use disorder.

For example, she signed LD 1862, strengthening Maine’s good Samaritan law. Specifically, this law protects a person experiencing an overdose and those providing aid at the scene from arrest and prosecution.

Mills also enacted LD 1909, which expanded access to syringe exchange services and increased the number of clean syringes that may be provided by an exchange program.

But more needs to be done.

The new legislative session provides unique opportunities for Mills to address the opioid crisis in bold ways. We will see a renewed push to end prosecution for personal possession of drugs and invest in treatment, recovery, harm reduction and prevention. Of particular importance are renewed calls to expand access to medically monitored withdrawal or “detox” services, which our research suggests 84 percent of Mainers support.

Additionally, proposed legislation would redirect tax revenue from our emerging cannabis industry to sustain the good work of recovery community centers across the state. The Mills administration took commendable steps in establishing the regulatory framework that enacted the will of voters and got Maine’s cannabis industry off the ground. Now, let’s put that revenue to work supporting recovery options across the state.

Mainers want these policy changes. We recently surveyed Maine voters to understand where they stand on drug policy alternatives to criminal enforcement, such as decriminalization and harm reduction strategies that minimize risks associated with substance use. Our results suggest that Mainers, with relatively few exceptions, would support a broad suite of reforms that pivot away from criminalization

Mainers remain divided on more expansive policy changes, such as the safer consumption sites currently saving lives in New York City. Nearly a third of our respondents agreed with this approach and nearly 20 percent remain undecided, with 48 percent expressing disagreement with this approach. Nevertheless, Mainers are ready for a humane, pragmatic approach to these issues. This support extends across party lines and other social divides, and nearly all policy reforms are on the table.

Specifically, our results suggest Mainers support significant investment in and expansion of evidence-driven approaches to treating substance use disorder. They want to expand and improve access to medically monitored withdrawal, medication-assisted treatment and community-support programs for those on their journey to recovery. 

Mills concluded her inaugural address with a question about the future: “Our descendants, those generations yet to come — what might the telescope of the future reveal to them about who we are now and where we are going? Will it be good? Will they be proud of us?”

With 2023 in its infancy, Mainers are already losing loved ones, neighbors, family members and friends to fatal drug overdose. Will those descendants referenced by Mills be proud if we possessed the means and the popular will, but failed to enact the bold reforms necessary to stop these community members from dying?

Mills has earned a robust mandate for a second term leading Mainers. We hope she will use this opportunity to pursue an ambitious, multi-pronged approach to addressing substance use disorder and overdose.