AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Morris announced Wednesday that he will form a new intelligence group within the Maine State Police to gather and distribute information about drug dealers.
Morris, whose comments came at the conclusion of Wednesday’s drug summit organized by Gov. Paul LePage in Augusta, said the group, known as a “Fusion Center,” would include partnerships among police, emergency medical service workers and medical personnel in hospitals.
“We’ll be working with EMS providers in emergency rooms throughout the state so that all of us on both the law enforcement and medical sides can receive drug information on a timely basis,” Morris said. “We want to improve communications among all stakeholders. … The drug issue is huge, and anybody who doesn’t realize that has their head in the sand.”
The summit, which was closed to the public and the media, lasted for about three hours Wednesday morning and included most of the state’s top law enforcement officials and several federal ones.
LePage has said in recent weeks he wants the Maine National Guard to become involved in fighting drug crimes, but Morris said Wednesday that while the Guard would help analyze and distribute intelligence, it will “not be serving in a law enforcement role at this time.”
Leigh Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, said she is intent on expanding programs, such as five drug courts throughout Maine, that route offenders to treatment and counseling services from within the court system, instead of sending them to jail. Each drug court can handle from 25 to 35 offenders at a time.
Saufley said that the court system is considering expansion of drug courts with new resources allocated this year by the Legislature.
“We’re looking hard at Bangor for a new drug court,” said Saufley. “But drug courts are not the answer to everything. … As they come through the courthouse doors, we need to try to help those individuals and their families so they don’t keep coming through the courthouse doors or our county jails.”
Morris said there is strong recent evidence of increased heroin trafficking in the Bangor area. He said drug agents in August alone have intercepted one shipment of 1,000 bags of heroin to Howland and another shipment of 1,900 bags to Old Town.
“It kind of demonstrates the significance of the problem we’re having,” he said.
LePage called for Wednesday’s summit earlier this month, after a relatively unprecedented 14 heroin overdoses — including two fatal ones — happened in the span of 24 hours in Portland. Morris said the summit was a jumping-off point for three task forces moving forward, focusing on law enforcement, prevention education and treatment.
Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Director Roy McKinney said part of the reason for a rise in heroin use is a relatively successful campaign against the abuse of prescription drugs. He said heroin cases overtook prescription opioid cases in Maine two years ago. During the first six months of 2015, there have been 206 heroin trafficking investigations, compared to 95 cases involving opioids.
Wednesday’s summit followed a similar event Tuesday in Brewer, where U.S. Sen. Angus King, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and other federal officials discussed the treatment and recovery services side of the equation.
After Wednesday’s summit, Democratic Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, commended LePage for hosting the gathering but said she initially was concerned about how law enforcement officials can work around medical patient privacy if interviews with medical personnel and emergency room visits are to become parts of their investigations.
“I’m interested in hearing more about that,” Haskell said. “I’m interested in knowing where the line will be between providing medical care and law enforcement. We’re talking about people [addicts] receiving medical care in a medical setting.”
Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who is a former Cumberland County sheriff, said the sharing of intelligence between law enforcement agencies is a challenge that’s as old as drug addiction itself.
“My concern is we’re saying we’re going to do this within existing resources,” Dion said. “To me, that is a short-term strategy.”
LePage attended the summit but did not take questions from reporters.