WESTBROOK — Gov. Paul LePage and Public Safety Commissioner John Morris met with police chiefs and officials from throughout Maine on Friday to hear firsthand from them about the extent of the drug problem in the region.

What they learned in their closed-door meetings was, among other things, that just as society is making headway against prescription drug abuse, the problem of heroin use is growing.

“Heroin is becoming the drug of choice and it’s cheaper on the street,” LePage said during a news conference after a meeting in Westbrook.

LePage said the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, county prosecutors and the judicial system are under intense pressure, yet have inadequate staffing.

LePage and Morris said the severity of the problem shows the importance of continued funding for the MDEA, which depends heavily on federal grants, a position police officials support.

“What we heard over and over again is we’re doing so much more with so much less,” said Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck. “The resounding comments from the personnel that were present were in support of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.” Portland currently assigns a sergeant and two detectives to the intergovernmental drug task force.

Police were unable to provide statistics that accurately show the extent of the drug problem or that heroin use is increasing. Much of that is based on anecdotes from police making arrests and seizing drugs, such as the Oct. 7 arrest in Portland of four people from New York and the seizure of 125 grams of heroin and 72 grams of crack cocaine, worth about $30,000.

One measure of relative drug use comes from the Maine Office of Substance Abuse. The number of people hospitalized for treatment of heroin abuse or addiction had been steadily falling until 2010, when it stood at 1,768, according to Substance Abuse Trends in Maine 2013, issued by the Maine Office of Substance Abuse. That includes people for whom heroin use is one of two or three problems that led to a hospitalization. In the past two years, the number has climbed to 2,061.

Meanwhile, those hospitalized for prescription painkiller abuse or addiction, not including methadone, hovered at about 7,000 through 2011 before dropping to about 6,000 in 2012.

MDEA Director Roy McKinney said efforts at stopping prescription drug diversion – including by doctors – have reduced the availability of drugs such as oxycodone, driving up their prices. Heroin, meanwhile, is as cheap as it has been in years. A 30 milligram OxyContin tablet used to cost $30 and now can go for $55, he said.

Friday’s meetings between LePage and police took place as Congress tries to craft a budget that may well contain cuts in federal grants that fund many of the state’s drug agents. There is currently no money in the biennial budget to offset a cut in federal funds, officials said.

“The last thing we need to do right now is cut back on MDEA,” said LePage, who held a similar meeting in Auburn with chiefs in that area later in the day. The administration had budgeted money for this year and next to cover an expected federal cut but it was removed when this year’s federal money came through at the last minute, Morris said.

McKinney said 46 drug agents are at least partially funded by federal money. The administration worries that about $360,000 may be cut from the federal share to the state and have to be made up with state funds.

Local police officials said after the meeting in Westbrook that they were glad for the chance to meet with the governor.

“I thought it was a unique opportunity to be able to sit down with that group of law enforcement, prosecutors, the governor and his staff,” said Lt. Frank Clark of South Portland. “Not surprisingly, I think all the issues we’re experiencing in South Portland are the same as are being experienced in Portland or Gorham or Yarmouth.”

“A lot of the issues we’re dealing with relate to or boil down to drugs,” he said. “If we have 20 burglaries this month, we might find out when we arrest the people it’s due to drug addiction. There’s just a lot of that sort of behavior going on.”

Gorham Police Chief Ron Shepard said after the meeting that his town was hit with a record number of pharmacy and commercial robberies last year, an indication the drug problem is becoming more serious. Robberies are especially worrisome because the suspect may be armed and people can get hurt.

“The majority of us agreed the MDEA obviously needs more resources than what they’re currently alloted,” Shepard said.

Cmdr. Scott Pelletier, head of the MDEA in southern Maine, said that in his 27 years of law enforcement he does not recall the state’s chief executive calling a meeting of local police officials to discuss crime and enforcement strategies.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com