President Donald Trump’s drug czar visited Brewer for a roundtable discussion with local law enforcement on Friday morning, as Maine has seen overdose deaths rise during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The law enforcement discussion was the first in a day of events in the Bangor area for Jim Carroll, who has been director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy since January 2019. Carroll also planned to visit the Bangor Area Recovery Network in Brewer, and meet with local business leaders and Piscataquis County economic development groups.
Visiting Brewer on the day the president and First Lady Melania Trump announced they had tested positive for COVID-19, Carroll said he had not seen the president or first lady in two weeks and that he is tested for the coronavirus regularly. Some research has shown that 97.5 percent of people with COVID-19 who develop symptoms do so within 11.5 days of contracting the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says the disease’s incubation period can extend to 14 days.
The roundtable event with law enforcement was closed to the press, but Carroll spoke with reporters after the event.
“It’s important to be able to talk to folks in rural America and understand what’s happening,” Carroll said. “The roundtable with law enforcement was to hear about some of the concerns that they’re seeing from a law enforcement perspective, and some of the changes that we’ve seen as a result of COVID.”
Carroll said his team is working on making sure that naloxone, the medication designed to reverse an overdose, is widely available and that treatment centers across the country are deemed essential and receive all the personal protective equipment they need to stay open during the pandemic.
Carroll also said he supports legal harm reduction efforts such as needle exchanges and free naloxone handouts, which have gained popularity in Maine in recent years, as long as they “don’t continue widespread adversity to individuals that are suffering and don’t make situations worse.”
This was Carroll’s second visit to Maine in two years to meet with law enforcement about the opioid epidemic, he said.
Maine has been hit particularly hard by opioid addiction. It had the 13th highest rate of overdose deaths in the nation in 2018, and the number of overdose deaths has been on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Overdose deaths in the second quarter of this year were up 23 percent from the last quarter of 2019. Bangor and Penobscot County also saw their fatal overdose numbers climb during the first part of this year, according to state data.
Specifically, the number of overdose deaths due solely to fentanyl has been on the rise in recent years.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever that is usually prescribed for severe pain but is sold illegally for its heroin-like effect, according to the CDC. It’s often cut into doses of heroin — users are generally unaware — and is 50 times more potent.
But it’s also increasingly sold on its own, with users often under the impression that they’re buying heroin. Maine State Police in the southern part of the state found no heroin during traffic stops this summer, but they did find fentanyl.
Carroll served as acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy before his Senate confirmation made him the office’s full director in January 2019. The office is responsible for coordinating various anti-drug initiatives across 16 different federal agencies.
He began his career as a state prosecutor in Virginia, held several positions in President George W. Bush’s administration, and served as Ford Motor Company’s Washington counsel and as counsel of Ford’s philanthropic arm before joining the Trump administration.
Carroll’s visit on Friday wasn’t the first visit to the Bangor area by a director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Michael Botticelli, who directed the office under President Barack Obama, visited Bangor in October 2014 for a town hall forum titled “Pain that Kills: Confronting Bangor’s Opiate Epidemic.”