Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared in Portland Friday to promote a federal push to prosecute suspected fentanyl dealers in parts of the country especially hard hit by the opioid crisis.
Sessions came to Maine’s largest city to repeat a Thursday announcement that U.S. Department of Justice is deploying attorneys to charge anyone believed to be selling the synthetic opioid. But he was met by crowd of protesters incensed over the Trump administration’s’ immigration policies.
Fentanyl has accounted for a growing share of the Maine’s overdose deaths in recent years, and the state is among 10 areas that will be receiving an additional prosecutor as part of the federal initiative.
“Today, we are facing the deadliest drug epidemic in the history of America,” Sessions told a group of local, state and federal law enforcement officials gathered at the U.S. Attorney’s office on Middle Street in Portland. “Sadly, Maine knows the tragic consequences of drugs and addiction all too well.”
Following the talk, Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce, a Democrat and president of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association, said “we can’t arrest ourselves out of this problem” and that he’d welcome federal support to bolster Maine’s limited drug rehabilitation programs.
“I think it’s a great step towards getting the people who are poisoning our community out,” Joyce said of the focus on fentanyl. “Hopefully, the next time someone comes up here from Washington they’ll be talking about substance-use rehabilitation.”
Modeled after an initiative in a part of Florida hit hard by overdose deaths, Sessions’ “synthetic opioid surge” will focus on those accused of selling and supplying the drug rather than on users, he said in prepared remarks. The attorney general did not take questions.
Federal and state prosecutors in Maine have brought cases related to fentanyl since the drug’s emergence. Sessions said the new initiative aims to weaken the networks that make it available on the street.
Rarely involved in street-level drug deals as recently as two years ago, fentanyl is often mixed into cocaine or heroin, but is far more potent and can kill users almost instantly. Last year, the synthetic opioid accounted for 247 of Maine’s 418 overdose deaths, according to the state attorney general’s office.
Around 150 protesters gathered outside the U.S. Attorney’s office during Sessions’ visit to protest Trump administration policies that have set off a political crisis at the border.
Kevin Simpson said he traveled from Auburn to stand against the separation of children from their parents at the southern border — part of the so-called zero-tolerance immigration policy from which the administration backed off last month.
“Seperating children is wrong,” Simpson, 82, said. “It shouldn’t be done. It’s against our values.”
The crowd had mostly dispersed shortly after his talk ended, but some protesters remained, blocking the entrance to the building’s parking garage, police said.
Confronted by police, most of the remaining protesters chose to move onto the sidewalk and out of the way of cars, but two women opted to stay and were arrested around 1:25 p.m., Assistant Portland Police Chief Vernon Malloch said.
Jessica Stewart, 39, of Southwest Harbor, Maine, and Lucia McBee, 70, of New York City were charged with criminal trespass, Malloch said.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted a single word of Sessions’ remarks. He said Maine knows the consequences of "addiction" too well.