U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King brought Maine’s heroin problem to Capitol Hill this week, looking to bolster both the military’s efforts to stem the supply of the drug and treatment professionals’ work to curb demand.

King on Wednesday raised the issue at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, pressing the admiral nominated to lead the armed forces of the U.S. Southern Command about what more the military might do to stop importation of the deadly drug.

“I’m not talking about militarizing the response to this problem,” King said Friday in a telephone interview, “but doing a better job with the resources we already have. We’re going to have to work all the pressure points we can, starting with supply but going all the way through.”

Collins on Tuesday asked a panel of treatment experts what more the federal government could do to bring together law enforcement and treatment options along the lines of Scarborough’s Operation HOPE or Project Save ME in Oxford County, in which users can turn themselves in without fear of arrest and police and their partners will try to locate drug treatment for them.

Collins, a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, requested the hearing on opioid abuse in America to raise awareness among fellow legislators about the issue and possible solutions.

“There is increasing interest on Capitol Hill on really tackling this problem because more and more senators are hearing from law enforcement in particular from their states that they can’t solve this problem by just arresting all the people who are using drugs,” Collins said Friday in a statement. “There needs to be a more coordinated approach to the issue.”

Like many other rural states, heroin addiction is surging in Maine.

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

An analysis in this week’s Maine Sunday Telegram showed how market forces have led drug trafficking organizations and inner-city drug gangs to target places like Maine where they can maximize profits, making millions on a drug that costs pennies to grow in Latin America.

Collins cited the article in her remarks before the Senate committee, which has jurisdiction over treatment and prevention programs.

“This epidemic is playing out in emergency rooms, county jails, and on Main Streets in my state and throughout the country,” Collins said. “Maine’s sheriffs tell me that their jails are overwhelmed by those struggling with addiction.… They are not designed to take the place of treatment centers, and yet sheriffs and police chiefs must train their officers to look for signs of withdrawal and monitor mental health status.”

Collins asked a panel of treatment experts what the government – at the federal, state and local levels – could do to bring law enforcement and treatment options together.

Eric Spofford, who runs a residential recovery program in Canterbury, New Hampshire, said there needs to be more access to treatment for people who are in jail or prison, most of whom have some substance abuse disorder. He told the committee that regardless of how long people are incarcerated, if they are not in supported recovery, they will still be addicts when released and likely resume the same behavior that got them locked up, instead of being productive citizens.

Collins said Friday that addressing the demand for heroin will require education, such as teaching children that even though prescription painkillers are legal, they can be dangerous. Many people addicted to heroin were initially hooked on painkillers, she said. Parents, patients and health care workers also need to be aware of other options to treat pain, besides powerful painkillers, she said.

Collins lamented the loss of treatment centers like that operated in Westbrook by Mercy Hospital, which cited low reimbursement rates and a lack of funds.

The hearing did not yield legislation, but Collins plans to advocate lifting the 100-patient cap on how many people a doctor can treat with Suboxone, an opiate replacement that can help some people quit.

King has held two round-table meetings in Maine about drug addiction, one on opioid-prescribing practices and one on treatment and prevention. He plans another meeting on the topic of treatment in the near future, he said.

But King was addressing supply when he raised the issue of drug smuggling at a confirmation hearing for Navy Vice Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, who is in line to take over the Southern Command.

“They are missing about 75 percent of the drugs coming in,” King said Friday. “I wanted to know: ‘What do you need in the way of resources to … try to interdict more? Is it Coast Guard assets, DEA, is it intelligence, surveillance? What are the assets we need?”

Tidd was not specific about what might be helpful in efforts to further crack down on the drug trade, but said he was eager to work with the senators about the issue. King said the lack of specifics may stem from rules that prohibit the nominee from taking over the command until he has been confirmed by the Senate.

The Southern Command, which covers the countries south of Mexico’s southern border as well as areas of the Caribbean, emphasizes building up the law enforcement capabilities and civil society in drug-producing countries as the best way to curtail the drugs being smuggled into the United States, attacking the problem closer to its source.

But the real key is stemming demand, Tidd said in response to a question from King.

“It’s akin to having the best bilge pump in the world in your boat, but if you can’t repair that hole in the hull by solving the demand side, then the boat is going to sink,” he said.


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