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3 Working Groups to Tackle Heroin Problem in Maine

AUGUSTA, Maine — Less than two months after U.S. Sen. Angus King and Gov. Paul LePage held separate drug summits on Maine's opiate problem, a broad, new multidimensional approach is underway to address the public health crisis.

It's called the Maine Opiate Collaborative. The focus is law enforcement, prevention and treatment.

Those leading the effort say they expect measurable outcomes.

Attorney General Janet Mills says she doesn't want another report dropped in the circular bin in the spring or summer of next year. She and others involved in the Maine Opiate Collaborative want action and results, including a drastic reduction in the number of drug traffickers in the state and a drastic reduction in heroin and drug overdose deaths. There were 208 last year.

"I want to see a drastic increase in the prevention efforts in our schools," Mills says. "I want to see an increase in the public education efforts. I want to see families come forward and tell us very bluntly how their family members got addicted and how we can prevent this happening to other people."

Three independent working groups have been established to identify the issues that are fueling the opiate crisis and to come up with solutions. They could include everything from expanding drug courts and coordinating resources to proposing legislation at the state and federal level.

Gordon Smith, executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association, says a crucial underpinning of the effort is the recognition that substance use disorder, commonly known as addiction, is a chronic illness. That means patients will relapse and live with this illness the rest of their lives, but Smith says they shouldn't be discriminated against or stigmatized as a result.

"We spend millions of dollars in this state to fix peoples' hearts," he says. "We might put a stent in an artery because a person has overeaten for 60 years. If that person then goes right back after their surgery to McDonald's, we don't have a guard out in front of McDonald's saying, 'Oh no, Jack, you don't get a second chance. We're not gonna do your next stent.' And we shouldn't do that to people with substance use disorder."

Smith says there's no question that Maine needs more drug treatment. And he acknowledges there aren't a lot of resources.

Methadone and Suboxone are the most effective treatments, Smith says, but there aren't enough Suboxone providers in Maine.

Still, he says a comprehensive review of what Maine has and what works for people is needed. Public Safety Commissioner John Morris shares that view.

"Despite the claims that police or law enforcement is only interested in arresting we understand that there are three issues," he says.

Those issues, says Morris, are law enforcement, education and treatment. He says the goal for law enforcement is to go after drug dealers aggressively but not to fill the county jails with drug users.

"We're not interested in the users in the sense of arrest," Morris says. "We're interested in drug dealers who fully understand coming up here to Maine is to make a profit."

U.S. Attorney Tom Delahanty says the three working groups will hold public meetings over the next several months and they will occasionally meet together.

The effort is also expected to include a statewide summit sometime next year to report on outcomes.

Delahanty says ever since the two drug summits in August, people from across Maine have been coming forward and asking what they can do to help.

"In 45 years of practicing law, mostly in some way related to criminal practice in the courts, I've never seen this large a number of individuals come forward regardless of the issue," he says.

Some will serve on the committees. Some will be asked to participate in other ways.

"We're not going to cure addiction," Delahanty says. "But we're not going to stand around while these people poison our neighbors and friends."