U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine has called on military leaders to develop a plan to dramatically reduce the amount of heroin coming across the nation’s southern border.

King spoke at the confirmation hearing for the admiral nominated to be the next commander of the U.S. Southern Command. The hearing was held Wednesday in Washington before the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which King is a member.

“We are at this moment in time, suffering, literally, from a heroin epidemic all over the country, including, tragically, in my state of Maine,” King said. “We’re spending a lot of time here talking about the threat of ISIS and in the meantime we’ve got this other threat that is killing, in my state, two or three hundred people a year.”

Navy Vice Adm. Kurt W. Tidd would replace U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, the current head of the southern command, who has held the post since 2012.

In testimony provided to the Senate Armed Forces Committee in March, Kelly said there is little the U.S. can do to prevent drug traffickers from entering the country.

“They just pay the fare. No one checks their passports … they don’t go through metal detectors. No one cares why they are coming. They just ride this network,” Kelly said. “And the way the network stays in place is drug demand – primarily drug demand in the United States and then the unbelievable profits that come out of drug demand.

“Until we really get around to the drug demand issue, there’s not an awful lot we’re going to be able to do to that network,” he said.

Kelly testified that 100 percent of the heroin entering the U.S. is produced in Latin America, about half in Mexico.

Kelly, in an op-ed piece last year in the Army Times, wrote “All this corruption and violence in (Latin American countries) is directly or indirectly due to the insatiable U.S. demand for drugs, particularly cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines.”

The U.S. Southern Command is charged with several missions. Among them are countering cross-border organized crime, counterterrorism campaigns against violent extremism and radicalization efforts, and overseeing custody of detainees at Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, according to he command’s website.

King asked Tidd whether he needed more intelligence gathering, ships or manpower to combat the drug problem.

“Assuming that you are approved at SOUTHCOM, you are going to be at the point of this and to the extent that you can, tell us what you need – not necessarily in terms of military assets, but comprehensively – because this is a true crisis in this country today and supply is part of the problem,” King told Tidd.

“Obviously we need to talk about treatment and prevention and all of those issues, but supply is part of it and my understanding is a great deal of this heroin is coming through south of our borders,” King said.

According to a report in the Maine Sunday Telegram, the number of people in Maine seeking treatment for heroin addiction more than tripled from 1,115 in 2010 to 3,463 in 2014. Overdose deaths in that period spiked from 16 to 100. In July, Portland had 14 suspected heroin overdoses during one 24-hour period, resulting in two fatalities.

Earlier this week, Gov. Paul LePage signed a financial order authorizing the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency to hire 10 drug agents to help combat Maine’s drug epidemic. The order was delivered Wednesday to Senate President Michael D. Thibodeau, R-Winterport.

LePage said the $781,000 needed to temporarily fund the positions will be drawn from reserves for the Gambling Control Board. LePage authorized the funds based on assurances from legislative leaders that the positions would be permanently funded.

LePage said the agents will be hired by the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency in January.


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