U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks to law enforcement officials in Portland about the opioid epidemic. (Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald)

Law enforcement has an important role to play in helping the nation respond to the opioid drug crisis, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Friday after a meeting in Portland with local law enforcement officials.

“Enforcement of drug laws is never more important than now.” Sessions said in a press conference at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “We prescribe too many opioids in this country. It has contributed and led people to heroin and fentanyl and death.”

Sessions said the Trump administration’s goal is to reduce opioid prescribing by one third in three years.

Sessions came to Portland to promote Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge, a crackdown on the misuse of opioids, which have fueled a crisis in Maine and across the nation. His visit attracted a crowd of about 150 protesters who gathered on the sidewalk outside the Middle Street offices of U.S. Attorney Halsey Frank.

The initiative Sessions hopes to draw attention to, Operation SOS, is being described as an “enforcement surge” focusing on 10 U.S. Attorney’s Office districts, including in Maine, with a focus on Cumberland County. In addition to Maine, districts involved in the enforcement surge will include northern and southern Ohio, eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, northern and southern West Virginia, eastern California, western Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

The program is modeled on what Sessions said is a successful enforcement model in Manatee County, Florida. The Justice Department wants to replicate that success in the districts that need it most, he said.


“This new strategy – and the new prosecutors who will help carry it out – will help us put more traffickers behind bars and keep the American people safe from the threat of these deadly drugs,” Sessions said in a statement Thursday.

The surge will “prosecute every readily provable case involving the distribution of fentanyl, fentanyl analogues and other synthetic opioids, regardless of drug quantity,” the statement said.

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce, speaking to reporters after Sessions’ remarks, said officials shouldn’t lose sight of putting more resources into treatment and prevention.

“This is an illness,” Joyce said.

Maine experienced a record 418 drug overdose deaths in 2017, an all-time record and averaged more than one death per day, according to state statistics. Drug overdose deaths have now surpassed motor vehicle accidents as a cause of death.

The protesters were mostly focused on other issues Friday morning, however.


A primary target of the protest is the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy for illegal immigrants at the southern U.S. border, which led to thousands of children being taken from their parents and detained. The administration is now under court order to reunite the families but has said it cannot meet the court’s initial deadlines

Protesters held signs declaring “Families Belong Together!” and “Baby Stealer.”

Others are protesting Session’s opposition to legalization of marijuana, police mistreatment of minorities and other grievances.

One large signs reads simply, “Why do you hate all of us?” and lists in smaller print “People of color… immigrants … people with substance abuse disorder … women …”

This story will be updated.

Comments are no longer available on this story