AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s public safety commissioner said Wednesday that the state will use the Maine State Police intelligence center and resources from the National Guard to combat drug trafficking in Maine.

Public Safety Commissioner John Morris discussed the stepped-up efforts after a three-hour meeting convened by LePage that involved the state’s top law enforcement officials and others fighting the state’s heroin epidemic.

The meeting was closed to the public and the media. Even the window of the door to the conference room was papered over to prevent people from observing. Officials, however, said no confidential information was discussed, and Morris and other participants answered questions after the meeting.

Morris said the National Guard will not act in a law enforcement capacity “at this time,” but will assist local law enforcement and emergency responders to gather information and provide analysis as part of a coordinated effort to break the supply of heroin coming to Maine. The National Guard already acts in a support capacity with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, providing four members to do analysis. Morris would not specify how many additional Guard members will be utilized or what type of information they provide to MDEA.

“The drug issue is huge and anybody that doesn’t recognize that has their head in the sand,” Morris said.

Morris and the LePage administration billed the meeting as a focus on enforcement, while acknowledging that treatment and prevention are also part of the equation. However, several participants in the summit stressed the treatment and prevention components after the meeting, including Thomas Delahanty, the U.S. Attorney who handles the prosecution of drug cases that violate federal law.

“There needs to be an effort on education and prevention … and there needs to be positive steps on the treatment side as well,” Delahanty said. “It needs to be coordinated.”

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the meeting was made private at the request of several attendees, but she would not specify who or why the request was made. Several of the participants said no law enforcement tactical information was discussed during the meeting and that they were free to discuss all facets of the meeting after it broke up.

LePage attended the event but left the summit without taking questions from reporters. Bennett said LePage didn’t want to “politicize” the event.

The meeting at the Department of Public Safety took place a day after U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, hosted a forum in Brewer that included family members of those who have died from drug overdoses, treatment providers, law enforcement and Michael Botticelli, the Obama administration’s director of the Office of Drug Control Policy. The two meetings reflected contrasting approaches to the state’s heroin and opioid crisis that the Office of Attorney General announced last week has claimed the lives of 34 people, a death toll that is on pace to match or exceed the 57 people who died of heroin overdoses last year. The meetings also follow 14 overdoses in Portland over a 24-hour period, resulting in two deaths, during the first weekend in August.

LePage has said the crisis calls for a law enforcement-heavy approach to disrupt the criminal network piping cheap heroin and other drugs into the state. His strategy has drawn skepticism and criticism from treatment providers and civil libertarians who question the state’s commitment to treatment funding and whether increased arrests will sweep up and incarcerate users as well as traffickers.

Michael Ferguson, the special agent in charge for Drug Enforcement Administration in New England who attended the summit, said his agency wasn’t focused on “the heroin addict.”

“We are targeting drug trafficking organizations, those responsible for putting the poison out on the street, whether it’s heroin or heroin laced with fentanyl, that’s killing the citizens of Maine and others in the United States,” he said.

Ferguson stressed that the heroin epidemic was not unique to Maine. He described the heroin trade as largely originating in Mexico where poppy production has increased by 50 percent. From there, the drug spreads throughout the country through a web of traffickers from Maine and other states.

“Mexico traffickers coordinate with Maine homegrown organizations,” he said. “There’s Maine traffickers who go to Massachusetts and north of Boston and obtain heroin and bring it back to Maine. You also have opportunistic drug traffickers in New York and Connecticut that are sometimes affiliated with gangs who also come to Maine and distribute the drugs.

Participants described the summit as a brainstorming session that will eventually lead to a coordinated three-pronged plan that includes enforcement, treatment and prevention. Delahanty said he expected three separate working groups would meet and later provide an integrated approach.

“This is not an overnight solution. They really need to be taken together,” he said.

Morris, the public safety commissioner, stressed the increased role of Maine Information and Analysis Center and the National Guard. He offered few specifics on the guard’s role, but MIAC, which also known as a fusion center, will create a separate division to deal with the drug trade. MIAC is largely an intelligence agency that collaborates with federal, state and local enforcement to gather and disseminate data that can later be used in disrupting criminal networks.

Morris said that emergency responders and emergency rooms will join law enforcement to provide MIAC information about overdoses and arrests. He described the Guard as providing additional analytical support, but he didn’t say how the military branch gathers information or what support it will provide.

Roy McKinney, the director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, said the goal of using emergency responder and emergency room data wasn’t to target addicts, but to analyze “hot spots” across the state.

McKinney said that the National Guard is already coordinating with the MDEA and he did not know how many additional guardsmen would be assigned to his agency to help gather intelligence on the trade. Guard analysts support MDEA and law enforcement by shouldering more of the data and intelligence efforts so that law enforcement can conduct investigations and make arrests, he said.

The National Guard does not have the authority to enforce domestic laws, but it can provide support services, a fact that conflicts with Morris’ comments that the Guard could one day provide an enforcement role.

States have used Guard resources for counterdrug efforts, such as flights to search for marijuana crops, but it’s less common for states to enlist Guard units in anti-heroin efforts. In Atlanta this month, the Georgia National Guard was called in to demolish blighted houses that had been used by heroin dealers.

While law enforcement officials outnumbered treatment experts more than 3-to-1 at the summit, Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, said that the conference was relatively balanced discussion of treatment, prevention and enforcement. Mills said that treatment experts made their voices heard at the meeting despite LePage officials’ focus on enforcement.

The LePage administration has been strongly criticized for not supporting more treatment capacity for addicts. On Monday, officials from Spectrum Health Systems said they will shutter their Sanford outpatient addiction-treatment facility because of a lack of state support.

“In Massachusetts, we’re seeing law enforcement helping addicts get into treatment,”said Charles Faris, Spectrum’s president and CEO. “In Maine, Gov. LePage is discussing calling in the National Guard to combat the state’s drug epidemic while leaving multimillion-dollar grant opportunities for funding treatment on the table.”

Democratic state Rep. Mark Dion and Sen. Anne Haskell, both of Portland, said that the Legislature was ready to assist the LePage administration in combating the drug crisis. However, Haskell said, the governor needs to recognize that the epidemic is also a public health crisis and that some seeking treatment can’t get it.

“It makes for great TV to arrest a drug lord,” Haskell said. “But it’s not such great TV to show someone coming out of treatment.”

Dion, the former sheriff for Cumberland County, said, “I appreciate what was said in (the media briefing), that this is not a war…. How we ever thought that the rank and file police were able to solve what is a primarily a public health issue is where we misplaced our priorities and money. We need to re-balance that formula.”

He added, “The day that we can say that addiction and drug abuse is first and foremost a medical issue is when we’ll have turned the corner in this fight.”

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @stevemistler

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