NORTHPORT – Maine’s governor and attorney general plan to form a task force to fight prescription drug abuse.

Attorney General William Schneider announced the decision Tuesday at the end of a day-long summit focusing on the expanding problem of painkiller addiction in the state.

The first mission of the task force, Schneider said, will be to implement recommendations generated by about 150 government officials, physicians, drug enforcement agents and others at Tuesday’s conference.

The steps include a new public education campaign to prevent pill abuse and a new system for sharing information between the law enforcement and medical communities.

“These will be pursued and they’ll be followed and they’ll be implemented,” Schneider said.

Schneider’s office planned the summit for months. The event followed a six-day series of articles published last week by MaineToday Media that Schneider and others praised Tuesday for laying out the issues and costs of prescription painkiller abuse in the state.

Nearly 1,400 Mainers have died from overdoses of pharmaceutical drugs in the past decade, for example, and more than 500 babies born in Maine last year faced potential opiate withdrawal and other effects of their mothers’ prescription drug abuse.

Participants in Tuesday’s summit said it was the first time such a broad variety of experts had come together in a statewide forum on the topic.

“If change is going to come, these are the people who are going to make it happen,” said Robert Crowley, a retired Superior Court justice who helped facilitate the summit.

Gov. Paul LePage spoke to the participants Tuesday morning – before the task force was announced – and urged them to take strong action.

LePage said the problem is becoming more costly to all Mainers and is a significant threat to the security of Maine’s communities. He specifically said the medical community has to limit the amount of painkillers prescribed.

“We need you all to participate,” LePage said. “I’ll be there, and whatever I need to do to help you, you let me know. … We need to get these drugs out of the hands of the wrong people. Those who have addictions, we need to treat them.”

Schneider said he and LePage will decide in the coming weeks what the task force will look like and who its members will be. The group is likely to propose legislative changes and other initiatives, he said.

Some recommendations, such as an education campaign, will require new funding at a time of strained state budgets. But, Schneider said, “I think we can find money.”
Speakers at the conference urged the participants, and the state, to take strong action.

John Woodcock Jr., chief judge of U.S. District Court in Maine, said opiate medications clearly must be available to the patients who rely on them to cope with pain. But, he said, abuse of the drugs is fueling crime and filling courtrooms and jails.

“How do we manage a medication that is so remarkably beneficial to so many and so remarkably destructive to others?” Woodcock asked.

He said he recently sentenced defendants in northern Maine who were trading guns to Canadians for oxycodone pills. He often sees defendants who truly regret their abuse of drugs but have not been able to climb out of the hole, he said.

“There is reason to hope that we in Maine, which as a state has dug our own hole, can climb out,” Woodcock said. “But it will be a hand-over-hand, daily and expensive struggle … and it begins with the people in this room.”

Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police, said the drug abuse has driven up Maine’s crime rate, shattered families and undermined residents’ sense of safety in their own homes.
“As the human species often does, we took something that was positive and turned it into something that’s absolutely devastating,” he said.

Addicts have recently turned to stealing metal – even rain gutters from unoccupied camps – to get money to buy pills, Williams said. “If it isn’t tied down, it’s gone – all because of prescription drug abuse.”

Williams noted that Mainers turn in more unused medications than residents of any other state. “Do you think maybe it’s being overprescribed?” he said.

“We have to start attacking it. … The problem will always be here, but we can manage it and we have not been managing it,” he said.

Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, told participants that they are dealing with a national problem.

More Americans now die from drug overdoses than car crashes, he said. “This is mostly driven by prescription drugs.”

Kerlikowske said an estimated 400,000 pounds of expired and unused pills will be collected Saturday at collection events nationwide, including in Maine. At the same time, he said, the Obama administration is hitting congressional resistance to funding a new national education campaign to fight abuse.

Kerlikowske credited Maine for its responses to the problem, including Tuesday’s summit.

“There really is an amazing group of people (here) and it’s a very smart way of dealing with this particular problem,” he said.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: jrichardson@pressherald.com