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Release of Maine governor's binder on drug dealers fuels more criticism

The release of Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s binder of drug arrest data has strengthened critics’ charges that LePage mischaracterized the racial breakdown of the offenders.

The 145-page binder containing copies of press articles and emails from the state Department of Public Safety was released this week after the ACLU of Maine filed a Freedom of Access Act request for the material.

During a town hall meeting last month, LePage said that more than 90 percent of those from out of state who were arrested for dealing heroin and similar drugs in Maine are either black or Hispanic. An analysis of the binder by the Associated Press, however, found that minority defendants from outside the state made up only about a third of the arrests for heroin- or opiod-related charges.

An AMI Newswire review of the photos in the binder found that well under 40 percent were black or Hispanic, though the race of some of the people in the black-and-white photos was ambiguous.

The governor’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, told AMI that LePage was originally comparing the number of out-of-state black and Hispanic defendants to the total number of out-of-state defendants charged with drug trafficking. The governor’s office, however, provided no reason why the race of those charged with drug crimes is relevant to the office’s efforts to fight crime and drug addiction.

“This is not about race,” Bennett said in an email. “Rather, this is about out-of-state accused drug traffickers. Prior to and since making the initial 90-percent statement, the governor has repeatedly said his concerns lie in the fact that drugs are being trafficked into Maine and killing Mainers.”

Maine ACLU officials said that the binder represents an incomplete overview of drug trafficking arrests in the state and that it didn’t back up what LePage had to say about the race of drug dealers.
  
“The governor greatly exaggerated the percentage of people arrested for dealing drugs who are black or Hispanic,” said Maine ACLU Executive Director Alison Beyea in a prepared statement. “He then used his false claims as the basis for calling people of color the enemy.”

The ACLU also argued that the governor’s use of a hodge-podge of emails and press clippings to gauge the drug-trafficking problem in the state was “outrageous” and that the governor should start proposing workable solutions to the problem based on facts.

But Bennett stressed that the LePage administration has been moving forward to deal with what has been termed the “heroin pandemic” in Maine by signing into law legislation that limited the strength and duration of opioid prescriptions, boosted funding for addiction treatment and increased the number of drug enforcement officers in the state.

“As the governor has done with domestic violence awareness, we must send signals that drug dealing in Maine is socially unacceptable.” she said. “It is our hope we can move past controversial comments and work toward conversations aimed at making a difference for the better.”

Meanwhile, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency reports a rising number of drug arrests in the past several years. The number of drug arrests stood at 5,599 in 2013, rising to 5,801 in 2014 and 5,943 in 2015, according to statistics released by the Maine Department of Public Safety this week.

Maine law enforcement officials report continuing abuses of heroin and prescription drugs, as well as a surge of out-of-state drug dealers operating in Maine. Overall, however, crime was down 7.1 percent during 2015.

“The growing drug abuse problem still affects all Maine law enforcement,” said Maine Public Safety Commissioner John Morris in a prepared statement. “As hopeful as the overall crime numbers are, drugs are still the driving force for most of Maine crime.”

Last month, LePage drew criticism when he said during a town hall meeting in North Berwick, “I don’t ask them to come to Maine and sell their poison, but they come and I will tell you that 90-plus percent of those pictures in my book, and it’s a three-ringed binder, are black and Hispanic people from Waterbury, Connecticut, the Bronx and Brooklyn.”

The governor has rejected calls by some lawmakers in the state for him to step down.