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Governor Charlie Baker Hoping for Legislative Action On Opioids

Gov. Baker On Stalled Opioid Legislation, Marijuana Legalization

Charlie Baker
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker is hoping to get his second piece of opioid legislation passed before this legislative session comes to a close.
Steven Senne
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Governor Charlie Baker Hoping for Legislative Action On Opioids

The legislative session on Beacon Hill is approaching its end and lawmakers still have a few major bills to pass before they break for summer and shift their attention towards campaigning for re-election. The three branches have to come together and compromise on the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Amid a sexual assault scandal, a leadership struggle that rocked the Senate, and criminal justice overhaul legislation that has consumed much of lawmakers’ attention, some legislative priorities have fallen to the wayside. One of these priorities is the governor’s second major piece of opioid legislation, which has stalled since he first introduced the bill last fall.

WGBH’s Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu spoke to Governor Baker in his office at the Statehouse about the legislation and how the introduction of recreational marijuana could factor into his plan to move forward with his campaign against opioids. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Joe Mathieu: Governor Charlie Baker joined us last year on WGBH’s Morning Edition for a special broadcast about combating the opioid epidemic. At the time, he had just filed legislation that would build on progress made under the state's opioid law passed two years ago. The new bill includes proposals to expand access to treatments and education, create coaches for those in recovery and allow for involuntary treatment for those considered a danger to themselves. The bill has since been redrafted. It’s been through committee but there's no clear timeline from here.

I sat down with the governor in his office on Friday and asked him if he was losing patience.

Governor Charlie Baker: Well, I can't speak to what people outside this building are saying, because I'm paying more attention to what people who are affected by this disease are saying, and what folks here who are working with us on it are saying. If you look at Massachusetts, we’re one of the only states in the country that in 2017 saw a decline in deaths and prescriptions and a leveling off of overdoses, and that was because of many of the elements of the legislation we got passed [in 2016]. We've added 1,100 treatment beds. We've increased state spending by about 60 percent, and we've added significant sums to our Mass Health program and our substance abuse programs to help people battle this epidemic. We have recovery coaches that we've embedded in certain hospital ERs to see if they can help get people into treatment that's proven to be actually quite effective — that’s one of the reasons why we would like to make recovery coaches a fundamental part of the way we deal with long-term treatment for people dealing with addiction.

That's one of the major elements of the bill that is moving currently through the legislature, and I'm certainly anxious to see the legislature get this done. But I'm also aware of the fact that there are a lot of points of view on this thing, and I think those points of view need to be heard before we sign something.

JM: Are you losing patience?

CB: Look, in a perfect world, you know, something like this would get done, and get done sort of quickly. But I recognize and understand that there are 140 members of the House and 60 members — excuse me, 160 members of the House, and 40 members of the Senate, and on this issue they all have a point of view. I mean, in the end, the last piece of legislation we got passed took a while but it was voted unanimously, and it made a big difference. And for me, on this stuff, of course I'd like it to happen quickly. But I also recognize and appreciate the fact that, you know, making legislation sometimes takes a while.

JM: Has your opinion evolved at all on the marijuana issue, and I ask you that because these two frequently come together in conversation. … Either in a bad way, if they say, “Well gosh, we've got an opioid crisis we have no time to be selling pot around here,' or, '[Marijuana] could be an alternative therapy.' That's the medicinal aspect. We're on the threshold of recreational marijuana becoming our reality as well, at least on the retail level. Are you worried about it, or has your mind changed in one way or another?

CB: Well, I still think it's fair to say that the evidence is overwhelming that opioids, heroin, fentanyl, are the big public health crisis here in the commonwealth. And I also know based on conversations I've had with people who have used medicinal marijuana to deal with anxiety and nausea typically associated with cancer treatment, that for them the CBD element of marijuana has been very helpful. With respect to recreational marijuana, I think the jury's going to be out until we actually implement it and see how it goes. The voters voted for it. I think the Cannabis Control Commission has been moving aggressively to get this program up and off the ground by July 1. I appreciate the fact that they are taking a tiered approach to this and going what I would describe as sort of with an incremental way of approaching this. But if you talk to the folks in Colorado and Washington, which are the two states that look the most like Massachusetts and have had this legal recreationally for the longest period of time, they'll both tell you that recreation legal recreational marijuana is a handful.

JM: Thanks for having us in the office and talking with us on WGBH radio.

CB: Happy to do it, Joe. Look forward to doing it again once we sign the bill.

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