- Associated Press - Monday, March 21, 2016

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - Gov. Maggie Hassan tapped New Hampshire’s top drug prosecutor Monday to oversee the state’s response to the ongoing opioid and heroin crisis.

James Vara is a senior assistant attorney general who has led the drug prosecution unit for three years. He primarily deals with felony drug prosecutions and drug-related death cases. He is expected to take on the role of Governor’s Advisor on Addiction and Behavioral Health, sometimes informally known as the ‘drug czar,’ in early April. He also sits on the opioid task force of the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment and Recovery.

More than 400 people died from drug overdoses in 2015, with many the result of overdosing on fentanyl, a drug that is far more powerful than heroin. Deaths have continued to climb since 2013. Duties of the job include making sure state agencies from corrections to justice are effectively working together and identifying gaps in New Hampshire’s prevention, treatment and recovery efforts.

“I have seen firsthand the devastating impact that this crisis is having on people across the state,” Vara said in a statement. Despite his law enforcement background, Vara said in the statement that New Hampshire cannot arrest its way out of the crisis, a frequent refrain among treatment and recovery professionals and advocates.

Funding for the job is already available through the governor’s commission, and the executive council must vote to approve it on April 6.

The job initially was created through a one-year grant by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Vara replaces Jack Wozmak, who resigned from the job earlier this year after facing scrutiny over his performance.

Hassan’s office said Vara is a strong choice for the job because he is well respected by lawmakers, law enforcement and addiction recovery and treatment professionals statewide. In his current role at the justice department, Vara testifies frequently before lawmakers on bills related to drug prosecution.

Tym Rourke, chairman of the governor’s commission, praised the appointment and said Vara is well prepared to make sure state agencies and offices work together effectively.

“He knows the issues, he knows the players,” Rourke said. “I’m really excited to hear him as the nominee.”

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