Law enforcement officials will outnumber treatment experts more than 3-to-1 at an Aug. 26 drug summit convened by Gov. Paul LePage in response to the state’s ongoing drug crisis.

The governor’s office on Tuesday released a list of 22 people, in addition to LePage himself, who have been invited to participate.

The list is heavy with law enforcement and legal professionals but light on those representing the treatment community – a reflection of LePage’s focus on law enforcement to get illegal drugs off the street.

Among those invited: Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Morris, U.S. Attorney Thomas Delahanty, Chief Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Leigh Saufley, Attorney General Janet Mills, Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck, Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson and Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew.

The treatment side will be represented by Acadia Hospital President Daniel Coffey, Maine General Hospital’s chief medical officer Dr. Steve Diaz and Bruce Campbell, chairman of the Bangor Area Recovery Network.

LePage said his recent call to action came after he learned of 14 heroin overdoses in Portland during a 24-hour period earlier this month.

“We must identify how to best utilize the scarce resources available to combat Maine’s heroin crisis,” LePage said in a statement. “I am very impressed by the group of individuals who will be at the table, and I anticipate an exchange of information that will help us find solutions to improve the health and safety of all Mainers.”

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokesman, said the goal of the summit is to idenify meaningful steps the state can take with limited resources available. She said follow-up meetings are likely but may not include the entire group.

In a news release identifying summit participants, the governor’s office said those who attend “will discuss public safety strategies” to address the state’s drug epidemic, but Bennett said treatment will not be ignored.

Maine’s drug addiction problem has become increasingly severe in recent years.

Last year, 57 people died from heroin overdoes in Maine, an increase of 68 percent over 2013, when 34 people died.

The number of Mainers seeking treatment for heroin addiction also has increased, from 1,115 in 2010 to 3,463 last year, according to the Maine Office of Substance Abuse.

Nationally, the number of people addicted to heroin has more than doubled in a decade, from 214,000 in 2002 to 517,000 in 2013, according to a study released this year by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“Heroin has hit Maine hard and now we’re starting to see an evolution of heroin,” Morris, the public safety commissioner, said in a statement. “Initially, we were seeing heroin and fentanyl mixed together, but we are now finding many more cases of fentanyl alone. It’s a lot cheaper to produce than heroin. We must identify specific problem areas and seek solutions before we lose more lives.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine expressed disappointed that the participant group is so heavily weighted toward law enforcement.

“How can there be a fully informed conversation about addiction at a summit where law enforcement agents and prosecutors outnumber medical professionals three to one?” asked Oamshri Amarasingham, policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine. “If the governor actually wanted to protect the health and safety of all Mainers, he would include more people who know about public health. Instead, his stubborn refusal to recognize the importance of treatment and recovery in combating addiction puts Mainers at risk.”

House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat from North Berwick and a family therapist who has worked with addicts, said he hopes the summit participants treat the state’s drug crisis as a “health care crisis, not simply a matter for law enforcement.

“I urge this group to focus on the ways substance abuse treatment tools can work together with law enforcement efforts to fix the problem,” Eves said. “There are models in other places like Gloucester, Massachusetts, and Seattle that have proven to work.

In treating at-risk families across the state, I’ve seen firsthand that the battle with addiction won’t be won in a jail cell. The state must take a comprehensive approach.”

LePage’s tough-on-drugs approach is a sharp contrast to how other areas are handling the current drug crisis.

In Gloucester, Massachusetts, as Eves mentioned, addicts can now go to the police station and get an escort to a treatment facility without fear of being charged, even if they are in possession of drugs. The town’s police chief, Leonard Campanello, said his department is committed to going after demand.

The city of Seattle has implemented a similar program, called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, that has reduced criminal recidivism rates by up to 60 percent for mostly low-level drug dealers and users.

LePage, though, has made the supply his priority.

Under his watch, the state already has added Maine Drug Enforcement Agency personnel and drug prosecutors, but LePage has sought more resources.

Last week, he said he would activate the Maine National Guard if necessary and he included Brig. Gen. Gerald Bolduc of the Maine National Guard as a participant for the upcoming summit.

The governor has consistently said that Maine has plenty of money for treatment, a claim that treatment experts have challenged.

During a May 29 news conference, LePage was especially pointed toward addicts.

“I’m looking to go after the traffickers. I don’t care about the users,” he said. “We’ll get them in clinical therapy and that can be dealt with – if they chose to.”

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell


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