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Governor's Drug Summit Make-Up Draws Criticism

AUGUSTA, Maine - More details about the governor's drug summit next week were released Tuesday, and, as expected, the list of invitees includes state and federal law enforcement officials and local police.

Public Safety Commissioner John Morris, who is coordinating the event, says the primary purpose is to address public safety issues. But the summit is already drawing criticism because of who it does not include.

The list of participants has a lot of heavy hitters from law enforcement and the criminal justice system, including Chief Justice Leigh Saufley and Attorney General Janet Mills. The U.S. Attorney for Maine, Tom Delahanty, and other state and local law enforcement leaders are among the 23 stakeholders invited to the private meeting that will also be closed to the press.

But it’s not who's on the list of invitees that's getting attention, it's who has been excluded. Only three representatives from the treatment and recovery community will be represented, and no addicts themselves.

"Drug addiction and the drug crisis we are facing is fundamentally a public health issue, not a public safety issue," says Oamshri Amarasingham, policy counsel at the ACLU of Maine. She says if the governor truly wants to address the opioid crisis, his summit should be about more than public safety.

"What we have seen over the last four years is a concerted effort to try and address the drug crisis with law enforcement and that clearly has not worked," Amarasingham says.

Commissioner Morris agrees that Maine's drug problem should be addressed on multiple levels.  But Morris says Gov. LePage made it clear from the start that the primary focus of this summit will be to combat the state's heroin epidemic.

Two hospitals that provide substance abuse treatment will be represented at the summit, along with the state's emergency medical services director. And Morris says they will be able to share their concerns as they relate to public safety.

"A critical part of that public safety in this crisis is EMS providers, emergency rooms and hospitals," Morris says. "And so, therefore, I have asked these high level hospital people to come so we can hear what their issues are."

Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew will also attend the summit. She agrees with Morris that the focus of this summit should be on public safety, but she says her department is also working on strategies to improve prevention and treatment programs.

Mayhew says, like Medicaid and Medicare developed measures to improve quality of health care, the department will seek to develop measures to judge effectiveness of treatment providers "to compare one substance abuse treatment provider against the next, and to establish payment policies that reward high performers and incentivize high quality substance abuse treatment."

House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat from North Berwick, is also critical of the make-up of the summit. He says treatment providers as well as prevention experts should be part of the mix. And he notes that no lawmakers have been invited to attend, even though the Legislature sets policy and funds the various programs dealing with drug abuse.

"It can only be helpful to have an all-of-the-above approach where lawmakers are at the table planning solutions with health care professionals, law enforcement officials, individuals from the governor’s staff," Eves says. "That is how we are going to solve this problem."

Morris dismisses that criticism, again stressing that the purpose of the summit is to explore ways to make the best use of existing public safety and law enforcement resources. "I have gathered a group of critical thinkers in the public safety field. This is not a political event."

And Gov. LePage was dismissive of legislative involvement in the issue when he was asked last week if he would seek additional resources from the Legislature to address the heroin epidemic specifically, and the drug abuse problem in general. "Have you seen any successes I have had with the Legislature?" LePage said. "Thank you."
 
Morris says that while the summit itself will be closed to the press to allow the participants to discuss law enforcement strategies, there will be a briefing afterward so that participants can discuss their findings and recommendations.

The full list of participants in the drug summit is below:

Governor – Paul R. LePage
U.S. Attorney – Thomas Delahanty
Chief Justice – Leigh Saufley
Attorney General – Janet Mills
State EMS Medical Director – Dr. Matt Shool
Commissioner Public Safety – John Morris
Commissioner DHHS – Mary Mayhew
U.S. Marshal – Noel March
DEA SAC New England – Michael Ferguson
Executive Director MCOP – Robert Swartz
President Maine Sheriffs – Sheriff Joel Merry
President Maine DA’s -Stephanie Anderson
Portland Police Chief – Michael Sauschuck
Chief Customs & Border Patrol – Daniel Hiebert
Colonel State Police – Robert Williams
Colonel Warden Service – Joel Wilkinson
Colonel Marine Patrol – Jon Cornish
Maine Drug Enforcement – Roy McKinney
Medical Examiner’s Office – Dr. Marcella Sorg
Maine National Guard – Brigadier General Gerald Bolduc
President Acadia Hospital – Daniel Coffey
Chairman Bangor Area Recovery Network – Bruce Campbell
Chief Medical Officer Maine General Hospital – Dr. Steve Diaz

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.