PORTLAND, Maine – Maine's governor is threatening to call up the National Guard to fight an epidemic of heroin and other drugs if lawmakers don't hire more agents.
Gov. Paul LePage made a surprise appearance in the Legislature on Thursday, telling panelists on the Appropriations Committee that there's a "dire need" for a more robust response. He first discussed a potential role for the National Guard over the summer in a radio interview but he hasn't said how personnel might be used.
"You either work with me and give me some agents, or I will call the Guard up," he said.
Lawmakers approved funding last session for six additional state drug agents, two judges and two drug prosecutors to handle major drug crimes. But LePage said that's not enough.
Maine House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat and an adversary of the Republican governor, said he'd be open to calling a special session "but we won't come back to have a partisan fight or waste taxpayer dollars."
Like the rest of New England, Maine is dealing with an epidemic of addiction and deaths associated with heroin, fentanyl and other opioids. Last year, a record 208 people died in Maine from drug overdoses, and 8 percent of babies born last year had mothers who used drugs, officials said.
Federal law limits how military personnel can be used to enforce domestic laws.
But John Goheen from the National Guard Association of the United States said Guard personnel can be used for law enforcement when a governor calls them into duty for the state. It's not uncommon for guard personnel to augment local and state law enforcement agencies with special equipment and capabilities, he said.
"Counter-narcotics is a fairly specific type of law enforcement. Theoretically, (National Guard personnel) could be used to backfill and provide some equipment," Goheen said Friday.
In the past, Maine Army National Guard helicopters were used as spotters seeking marijuana-growing operations. Several National Guard personnel currently assist in analyzing data in the state intelligence center. To the south, the Texas governor stationed National Guard troops on the border with Mexico.
LePage told lawmakers that the National Guard would assist the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency but didn't provide any specifics about how they would do so.
A Maine National Guard spokesman referred questions Friday to the governor's office, which had no further comment.