Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the opioid and fentanyl crisis: “When it comes to synthetic opioids, there is no such thing as a small case.”

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is launching a program that seeks to reduce the supply of synthetic opioids in areas with high overdose rates – including Maine – by cracking down on suppliers.

Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge, or S.O.S., will involve an “enforcement surge” in 10 U.S. districts that have among the highest drug overdose death rates, including the district that encompasses the entire state of Maine, according to a U.S. Department of Justice statement issued Thursday.

Each participating U.S. Attorney’s Office will choose a specific county and “prosecute every readily provable case involving the distribution of fentanyl, fentanyl analogues and other synthetic opioids, regardless of drug quantity,” the statement said. In Maine, the focus will be on Cumberland County, it said.

The enforcement surge will involve a coordinated U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operation to ensure that leads from street-level cases are used to identify larger-scale distributors, the statement said. Details of how the program will accomplish its goals or differ from existing law enforcement efforts weren’t outlined in the statement.

Sessions is scheduled to visit Portland on Friday to discuss the opioid epidemic with local law enforcement. The event will be held at the Portland office of Halsey B. Frank, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maine, where Sessions is expected to make remarks and discuss the national drug epidemic that continues to exact a deadly toll across New England.

The crisis was the subject of a Portland Press Herald special project in 2017 called “Lost: Heroin’s Killer Grip on Maine’s People.”

NEW STRATEGY: PROSECUTE LESSER CASES

In addition to Maine, districts involved in the enforcement surge will include northern and southern Ohio, eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, northern and southern West Virginia, eastern California, western Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

Operation S.O.S. was inspired by an initiative of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in central Florida involving Manatee County, the Justice Department statement said.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is greeted after being introduced by Scott Murray, U.S. attorney for New Hampshire, before Sessions spoke on the opioid and fentanyl crisis Thursday in Concord, N.H.

“When it comes to synthetic opioids, there is no such thing as a small case,” Sessions said in the statement. “In 2016, synthetic opioids killed more Americans than any other kind of drug. Three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal – that’s not even enough to cover up Lincoln’s face on a penny.”

Sessions said prosecutors in Manatee County have shown that prosecuting seemingly small synthetic opioid cases can have a big impact and save lives. The Justice Department wants to replicate that success in the districts that need it most, he said.

“This new strategy – and the new prosecutors who will help carry it out – will help us put more traffickers behind bars and keep the American people safe from the threat of these deadly drugs,” Sessions said.

In Maine, there were 376 drug-induced deaths in 2016 and 418 in 2017. In Cumberland County, there were 78 drug-induced deaths in 2016, including 68 opioid-related deaths, and 109 drug-induced deaths in 2017, including 94 that were opioid-related, the Justice Department statement said.

“As is much of the rest of the country, Maine is in the midst of a crisis in which people are dying from opioid overdoses at an alarming rate in large part due to the increasing availability and potency of synthetic opioids like fentanyl,” Frank, the U.S. Attorney for Maine, said in the statement. “In addition, Maine is seeing more of the violence that too often attends drug use and property crimes, such as shoplifting, committed to fund drug habits.”

CONTENTIOUS EFFORTS TO FIGHT OPIOIDS IN MAINE

Frank said addressing the opioid crisis requires all segments of society to engage, and that his office will continue to work with representatives of the prevention, treatment and recovery communities. But as the chief federal law enforcement officer in Maine, he said his primary responsibility is to enforce the law.

“I am grateful that the department is giving us additional resources to do so in the area of synthetic drug enforcement,” Frank said. “I am hopeful that we will be able to use those resources to reduce the supply of opioids that are coming from communities outside of Maine, killing Mainers, and causing untold collateral consequences.”

Frank said the enforcement surge in Maine will initially target Cumberland County because it has the highest number of overdose deaths of any county in the state.

Efforts to reduce overdose deaths in Maine by expanding access to drug addiction treatment and the lifesaving anti-overdose drug naloxone have met with resistance from Republican Gov. Paul LePage and his administration.

Naloxone, a proven tool for reducing overdose deaths, is finally becoming more widely available in Maine. The Board of Pharmacy last week published new rules for making naloxone available without a prescription.

LePage had repeatedly vetoed bills to expand access to naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan, and slowed the administrative rulemaking process. But the Legislature finally mustered the votes needed to override his opposition and provide universal access to naloxone.

On Monday, the Legislature also approved roughly $6.6 million in additional opiate treatment funding over LePage’s veto as part of a broader spending bill that incorporates a “hub and spoke” model to further develop local treatment capacity around the state.

A stumbling block to opening up treatment for more Mainers has been the ongoing debate over Medicaid expansion, which would give treatment options to 70,000 more people. Although expansion passed by voter referendum, LePage has insisted that the Legislature must first appropriate funds to pay for it.

A last-ditch attempt to appropriate the necessary funding failed this week when legislators voted not to sustain LePage’s veto of the spending measure. However, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court could step in after it hears oral arguments next week in a legal challenge brought by expansion advocates who want to force LePage to submit an expansion plan to federal officials.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jcraiganderson

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