BANGOR (AP) – Law enforcement and health officials told U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and John Sununu on Wednesday that more money and resources are needed to stop the diversion and abuse of prescription painkillers.

Dr. Margaret Greenwald, the state’s chief medical examiner, said the number of drug-related deaths this year is down slightly in Maine but it is still six times the level when she assumed the job in 1997.

A study conducted between 1997 and 2002 showed the majority of overdose deaths in Maine were caused by prescription drugs, she said.

“It’s tragically clear that prescription drugs, many as powerful and addictive as illicit drugs, increasingly are being diverted from legitimate use to illegal trafficking and abuse,” said Collins, R-Maine.

Collins, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, convened Wednesday’s hearing to call attention to the drug abuse problem and to hear from experts in law enforcement, health and public policy. Joining her at the Bangor City Council chambers was Sununu, R-N.H., a member of the committee.

State officials were ill-prepared when the prescription drug epidemic swept through the state, surprising everyone including drug agents.

Lt. Michael Riggs of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department remembers the days when marijuana sales suddenly dried up. Instead, he and other officers started findings prescription pills during searches.

Soon, they learned that the pills – Dilaudid, Percocet, OxyContin, among others – were a big business and no one was immune from their addictive effects: teachers, carpenters, store clerks, fishermen, government employees.

“The reason why there was so little marijuana around was because marijuana wouldn’t do an opiate addict any good,” he testified. “It would be like giving an aspirin to a person with a broken leg.”

Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood said the biggest problem in Maine’s biggest city is methadone, a synthetic drug used to treat heroin and morphine addicts. He assigned blame to inadequate oversight of methadone clinics, which are providing multiple doses to patients who sometimes sell their doses to others.

“There is no doubt in my mind that state and federal regulations pertaining to the dispensation of methadone must be strengthened,” he said.

He also said more resources must be devoted to law enforcement, prevention and education. He noted that in law enforcement, the number of Maine Drug Enforcement Agency agents has dropped from 76 to 34 since 1992.

Greenwald agreed that additional money is needed. She said the state’s prescription drug monitoring system needs more funding to allow doctors to check in real time for multiple painkiller prescriptions.

Also, more resources are needed for thorough investigations of the source of prescription drugs when someone dies from an overdose, she said.

Marcella Sorg of the Margaret Chase Smith Center for Public Policy at the University of Maine agreed that the challenges facing investigators in overdose cases can be daunting.

Most overdose victims have multiple prescribers and pharmacies as well as old unused portions of prescriptions, making it difficult for investigators to track down all prescriptions, she said.

Collins said efforts to bring prescription drug abuse under control should not interfere with legitimate pain management.

“It is tragically ironic that, while are streets are awash in prescription medications, the under-treatment of pain in legitimate patients remains a national problem,” she said.

AP-ES-08-06-03 1438EDT

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