- Associated Press - Thursday, October 8, 2015

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - A task force formed to address the state’s heroin epidemic held its first meeting on Thursday, with 35 people on three teams focusing on law enforcement, education and treatment, officials said.

The three working groups will hold additional meetings to come up with solutions and strategies to turn back the tide of overdose deaths, addiction and drug-related crimes, said U.S. Attorney Thomas Delahanty, who volunteered to establish the working groups after a pair of drug summits in August.

The task force can’t solve all of the state’s drug problems, but its volunteer members couldn’t stand by and watch while heroin destroys lives and families, Delahanty said.

“We are not going to cure addiction, but we can reduce the number of people who are dependent on heroin and other opiates,” he told reporters. “We can reduce the risk of death and the misery it causes to families and loved ones.”

Heroin, Fentanyl and other opiates are having an enormous impact in Maine, with 8 percent of babies born last year having mothers who used drugs, Public Safety Commissioner John Morris said. Last year, a record 208 people died in Maine from drug overdoses, officials have said.

The goal of law enforcement, Morris said, is to be aggressive in going after out-of-state drug dealers who are bringing drugs into Maine but not to target drug users and addicts.

“Law enforcement is not interested in filling county jails with drug users,” he said. “We must hunt down the dealers.”

On treatment and education, Gordon Smith, an executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association, said it’s far cheaper to focus on education to keep people from becoming addicted to drugs. And he said it’s equally important to treat addiction as a chronic illness, something each addict will have to live with “for the rest of their life,” he said.

Getting people into treatment and ensuring adequate beds for them is important, and an immediate help would be to expand the number of young adults eligible for Medicaid, Smith said.

“Major treatment facilities should not be our jails and prisons, and right now that is the case,” he said.

Delahanty said he was encouraged by the number of volunteers to help out on the working groups. He said there are so many volunteers that some were turned away to keep the size manageable.

The task force is led by an executive panel that includes Morris, Delahanty and Attorney General Janet Mills. Then there are four directors, along with the three working panels: law enforcement; prevention and harm reduction; and treatment.

There’s no timetable for the working groups, but Delahanty said they’ll be working aggressively in the coming months. Members of the working groups likely will report back to the public early in the new year, he said.

“We cannot be rushed, but we must act with dispatch,” he said. “We cannot wait for a final report to be authored and put on a shelf to gather dust. We need to act now.”


Follow David Sharp on Twitter at https://twitter.com/David_Sharp_AP

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