When I hear of police confiscating EBT cards in drug raids, I think of how it could be me

No one wants taxpayer dollars buying drugs unless, of course, the drugs are pharmaceuticals acquired through a pharmacy by legal means. So when EBT cards are found in drug raids, presumably used to purchase illegal drugs, folks understandably get up in arms. Like the recent bust in Enfield when law enforcement confiscated Oxycontin pills, cash and, among other things, eight EBT cards issued to people other than the couple arrested.

The LePage administration has made a big deal out of this misuse of government benefits, and there is even a federal law that suspends benefits for two years if recipients are found to have used benefits to buy illegal drugs on the first offense, permanently on the second.

Myself, I see these situations as opportunities to discuss the difference between accountability and judgment. Who among us doesn’t want to judge the SNAP or TANF recipient who uses those funds to procure drugs illegally?

This 2014 MDEA evidence photo shows the six state-issued electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, cards that were in the possession of a man when he was arrested at his apartment in Lewiston. He was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison on drug charges in July 2015.

This 2014 MDEA evidence photo shows the six state-issued electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, cards that were in the possession of a man when he was arrested at his apartment in Lewiston. He was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison on drug charges in July 2015.

Me. It’s not that misuse of government benefits doesn’t bother me, it’s just that it bothers me in different ways than it does other people. I’ve been a recipient of social service benefits, and I’ve worked professionally with other recipients, so maybe I see things in a slightly different light.

People who want to judge recipients whose cards are found in the residences of drug dealers are able to do so because they are quite sure they would never do such a thing. Myself, I’m not so sure.

Many years ago, doctors discovered that I had a chronic, degenerative health condition known to cause chronic pain and impact functionality. I was a MaineCare recipient at the time and was repeatedly offered opiate medications for pain, even though I never asked my primary care physician or neurologist at the time for them. Never.

I didn’t ask for them for the same reason I refused pain meds each time they were offered. I had a substance use history. I knew in my heart that an unlimited supply of free opiates was a bad idea for me, no matter what my condition was. I stopped using substances because I became a mom, and there was no way I was going to trigger myself into going back down that path, even if the doctors were “sure” treating chronic pain with opiates was a safe thing to do.

I’d been working on having a healthy mind for enough years to know that, for me, it wasn’t. So I’ve become a lay aficionado of alternative methodologies.

But what if I hadn’t? What if I had just said, “Sure,” and taken the ongoing opiate prescriptions. Not all my peers have had access to the kind of treatment that leads to a level of self-awareness strong enough to know when not to listen to their doctors.

And what if I became addicted to opiates while receiving medical care, and that addiction clouded my judgment and ability to make decisions and raise my children? And what if I had been summarily cut off those prescriptions when doctors and policy-makers finally woke up to the idea that it wasn’t a good idea to give relatively unlimited opiates to people like me and instituted prescribing restrictions?

Would I be desperate enough to use my EBT card to buy opiates? Maybe.

If caught would I want to be held accountable? I hope so. But I’d want the accountability to be more efficacious than a two-year benefit suspension, which does nothing to intervene in my addiction or to address the needs of any minor children in my care who may be neglected as a result of my addiction.

A default two-year suspension and evil glares from fellow community members wouldn’t get me in treatment. They wouldn’t get my children the compassion, support and interventions they might need.

And judgment and suspensions do nothing to insure that my family could be rehabilitated and supported as I worked toward a hypothetical recovery.

Accountability and judgment are tricky lenses to use, though. As a society we tend to find it’s easy to judge the person poor enough to need social services — a person poor enough to need social services who may have gone to a doctor whose interventions led to a crippling addiction that renders responsible decision-making virtually impossible.

It’s harder to use the lenses of accountability and judgment when we look at addiction’s back stories. Why is it so easy to judge the person who’s addicted, but not the doctors who helped the addiction develop? Why is it so easy to judge the person with a substance use disorder but not the professionals who promised Oxycontin wasn’t highly addictive? And what about the folks at the Food and Drug Administration who believed them?

Harder still, is to use the lenses of accountability and judgment when we look at the issue of MaineCare expansion and cuts. Not only has the LePage administration not expanded MaineCare under the Affordable Care Act but in 2014 it cut 25,000 parents and childless adults from the rolls. Back to my hypothetical opiate addiction — if I had become addicted to opiates while in the care of a MaineCare doctor, I’d want MaineCare held accountable by being forced to pay for my treatment.

I don’t know if any of the 25,000 who lost their MaineCare in 2014 had developed an addiction while receiving care funded by the program, but, given my personal experience, I certainly think such a scenario is within the realm of possibility. If there were such a case, our state is negligent in not expanding MaineCare to allow such a person to get treatment to undo the damage from the treatment he or she received earlier.

There is no avoiding MaineCare’s role in making this mess, and, therefore, there should be no avoiding MaineCare’s responsibility when it comes to cleaning it up.

In other words, taxpayer dollars were legally used to buy drugs that may have led to addiction, which led to taxpayer dollars being used to buy the same drugs and others illegally, but not to treat the addiction. Judge that.

It’s a bit harder than judging the owners of those EBT cards.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.