LePage summit addresses opioid problem

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AUGUSTA — Maine’s ongoing battle with opioid abuse and related crime isn’t going away anytime soon, according to officials gathered Wednesday for a summit called by Gov. Paul LePage.

While they called the meeting productive, officials said Maine, like the rest of New England and the nation, faces a massive struggle.

“This is not an overnight solution,” U.S. attorney Thomas E. Delahanty II said at a news conference after the nearly three-hour summit. “It’s going to be carried on for a very long time.”

About two dozen top law enforcement and health care officials joined LePage to develop strategies for combating Maine’s growing opioid problem.

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The group settled on a three-pronged approach and will form working groups to focus on law enforcement, education and prevention and treatment for addicts, Delahanty said.

LePage, who did not attend the news conference after the summit — his spokeswoman said he was concerned his appearance would further “politicize” the issue — has been panned by some for focusing too heavily on law enforcement in his attempts to quell Maine’s drug addiction problems.

But even some of LePage’s political rivals said the end result of the summit, which was closed to the media and the public, appeared to be a good outline for a state response that will require coordination with the federal government.

Mike Ferguson, a U.S. agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the special agent in charge of New England, said Maine was not alone in its battle. He said addiction and crime problems coming from heroin and fentanyl being smuggled from Mexico are widespread and growing.

“The increase in heroin overdose deaths and the heroin crisis that’s going on isn’t unique to Maine,” Ferguson said. “It is happening all over the United States.”

He called the summit “a positive thing.” He said most of the heroin flowing into Maine comes from dealers in areas north of Boston or New York City, but he also said local, “homegrown” drug dealers often are involved in partnering with out-of-state entities, including those with ties to the Mexican cartels.

Production of poppies, the plant from which heroin is derived, has seen a 50 percent increase in Mexico, and most of that is flowing into the U.S. through the country’s vast Southwest border region, Ferguson said.

Participants in the event Wednesday at the Maine Department of Public Safety’s Augusta headquarters included Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, Attorney General Janet Mills and Dr. Matt Shool, medical director of state emergency medical services.

Saufley said more than 50 percent of all crimes prosecuted in Maine courts were drug- or alcohol-related, based on her conversations with prosecutors around the state.

She said the precise volume of drug crimes is difficult to pin down because data are not always readily or easily shared. 

“We know it’s an extraordinarily high number,” Saufley said. “All of the prosecutors tell us it is far more than half of the people charged with crimes, but I would be stretching my knowledge to tell you exactly how many people charged with crimes are there because of drugs or alcohol.”

Saufley said efforts to expand the state’s drug courts, which focus on counseling and treatment for drug addicts instead of prison sentences, are underway, but court financial resources are always an issue.

Since January, Maine has seen 105 overdose deaths with more than half involving heroin or fentanyl, a synthetic opioid substitute that can be 50 times as potent as heroin.

Mills, the state’s top prosecutor, said her office was treating every opioid overdose death as a crime scene and was looking hard to prosecute those who supplied the illegal drugs involved.

“My office is particularly concerned with drug-overdose deaths and analyzing those death scenes and treating them as crime scenes as we try to develop a link to the source and bring about those prosecutions,” Mills said. 

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who served as a Portland police officer and Cumberland County sheriff, said he was encouraged that the group appeared to be taking a dynamic approach to the issue, focusing on not only on law enforcement but also on prevention and treatment.

Dion and Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said after the summit they wished some lawmakers had been included in the summit so they would have firsthand information for making policy going forward.

Dion said the addiction problem facing American society is complex and deep-rooted. He said the conversation beyond the confines of LePage’s summit is an important one to continue.

“Just keep in mind, if you watch television tonight,” Dion said, “in between your segments there will be repeated commercials about drugs. We are an addicted society. It’s a distinction that some are legal and some are illegal, but we’ve grown up in an environment where there is a pill for everything. And that gets translated across our culture — to our young people and those with skill sets that need to be developed — that drugs make sense on some level. But, unfortunately, the consequences are horrific in certain circumstances.”

sthistle@sunjournal.com

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