PORTLAND, Maine — U.S. Attorney Thomas Delahanty II spent Thursday morning crafting plans for three working groups to address issues related to Maine’s growing drug abuse crisis.
Delahanty spent the two previous days at separate forums held first by U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, then by Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Each gathering focused on different aspects of the epidemic, which one August weekend saw 14 overdoses — including two fatal cases — within a 24-hour period in Portland.
Along with improving communications among key stakeholders involved in combatting the surge in drug abuse in Maine — specifically heroin — and brainstorming strategies to attack it, the working groups were the most tangible result of the two days.
Using those working groups to move government from talking about Maine’s opioid addiction problem to acting against it will be the next challenge, Delahanty said.
“I think a number of people there had their eyes opened as to how prevalent the problem is and what the root of the problem is,” Delahanty said last week.
Delahanty; Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, who serves as president of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association; and Bruce Campbell, chairman of the Bangor Area Recovery Network and clinical director of Wellspring Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, were three of the four invitees who attended both meetings. All three support the working groups, one of which will focus on law enforcement, a second on education and prevention and a third on treatment and rehabilitation.
“It’s a three-legged stool,” Delahanty said, describing how summit attendees agree Maine must approach the problem.
King’s Aug. 26 session included members of the treatment community and those who personally had been affected by substance abuse, along with law enforcement professionals. With National Drug Control Policy Director Michael Botticelli in attendance, it focused predominantly on the availability of federal funding for treatment, along with sharing ideas.
Police officials from around the state spoke of “practical problems” they encounter, including finding people who have overdosed and finding treatment beds for them, instead of simply locking them up in county jails, Delahanty said.
Merry said he heard “some very concrete ideas and suggestions,” including increased focus on finding health care and other services for inmates fighting drug addiction when they leave jail that will allow them to remain drug free.
“If you have a person in jail and they’ve done six, eight, nine months and they’re clean and they’ll even admit they want to stay clean, but going back out into that environment is not conducive to staying sober,” Merry said. “They need support, they may need counseling, addiction services. If they don’t have a job, they don’t have means to pay for it and in most cases they don’t — they fall into a crack. … I’m not talking about giving them cash to go buy drugs. I’m talking about giving them the ability to access services that will keep them sober.”
On Wednesday, LePage convened primarily law enforcement leaders. In addition to laying out the latest statistics on state government’s efforts to deal with opioid abuse, the summit centered on how to improve communication between law enforcement and medical professionals.
According to those who attended LePage’s summit, which was closed to media and the public, discussion also zeroed in on differences between those who sell drugs to support their own addictions and dealers — or “entrepreneurs” — who are not users but are “finding ways to market this poison and going at it indiscriminately and cleverly,” Merry said.
After LePage’s summit, Maine Public Safety Commissioner John Morris announced he would form a new intelligence group — a “Fusion Center” — within the Maine State Police to gather and distribute information about drug dealers.
Delahanty said that while the governor’s group was focused on law enforcement, “even law enforcement is on board with treatment.”
“Even though the governor’s summit was focused on demand, I think overwhelmingly the people in the room agreed that it’s a multipronged approach that’s going to resolve this issue,” Merry said. “I think it’s a good initiative. I think the different groups can strategize among themselves [and determine], ‘This is what we have to offer, this is what we’d like to do’ and determine how to make it part of one strategic plan.”
Campbell called the meetings “real positive action” and added, “There are some hopeful things there from a treatment perspective.”
Delahanty said the working groups were given no deadlines.
“Where we go from here — no answer was arrived at, and I didn’t expect there would be,” he said. “It will take a while to put a program together and, hopefully, find an answer. There’s no guarantee there is an answer.”
But Merry said an answer needs to be found soon, because heroin isn’t going away on its own.
“As long as there’s a market for it, we can lock people up and there’s going to be somebody else to take their place,” Merry said. “Maine is open for business, someone said at the summit. There’s a market here — there’s a thirst for it.”