U.S. Attorney Thomas Delahanty II on Thursday announced the formation of a new task force to address the heroin epidemic in Maine.

The task force will be led by an executive panel including Delahanty, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills and Public Safety Commissioner John Morris.

It will consist of three working groups, one focused on treatment, one on prevention and harm reduction, and one on law enforcement.

The 10 to 11 members of each team are leaders in their fields. Each group will meet separately and then reassemble as a larger group to share ideas and progress, Delahanty said. However, solutions won’t wait, he said.

“We need to act now. As each group finalizes an idea, we want to put it to work,” Delahanty told a Portland news conference attended by members of the media and participants in each of the working groups. “We’re not going to stand around while these people poison our family and friends.”

The groups will seek support from legislators and the state’s congressional delegation if laws need to be changed, he said.

The task force came together after a summit on heroin addiction called by Gov. Paul LePage and a roundtable on the issue hosted by Sen. Angus King, both held in late summer.

Morris told Thursday’s gathering that the heroin trade is having a severe impact on the state. He said 8 percent of Maine births – an average of three newborns a day – are affected by illegal drugs.

The out-of-state dealers are ruthless and have killed to protect their enterprises, he said.

“Law enforcement is not interested in filling county jails with drug users,” he said. “We must hunt down the dealers.”

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said most of the city’s crime and the state’s 10 most recent homicides have some connection to substance abuse.

At the same time, there has been a surge in the number of people who have died from heroin overdoses and in the number of people seeking treatment.

Gordon Smith, executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association, said getting drug users into treatment and having a long-term recovery plan is essential for curtailing a problem that is affecting all segments of society.

“It’s a chronic illness … they will live with this for the rest of their life,” he said. He also said it’s important the three working groups collaborate.

“It’s not possible to draw a bright line between treatment and education and even law enforcement,” he said.

Money is sure to pose challenges for the effort. Morris said all three components for curbing drug use are important but funding for law enforcement has fallen short in recent years. That has been a theme of LePage, who has said much more is spent on treatment than on law enforcement.

Smith said the problem of reduced health care coverage for treatment has led clinics in Sanford and Westbrook to close, making it more difficult to find treatment for people who seek it.

Meanwhile, the cost of heroin to society goes beyond the cost of medical care for users or the jails, prisons and prosecutors that support law enforcement’s efforts, he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Perry, head of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, said preventing people from becoming addicted is the key to reining in the problem and keeping it in check regardless of what drug it is.

Mills said it is important the task force produce results, not just reports that don’t get acted upon.

“It’s a good group of people,” she said. “We’re looking to bring together the tremendous amount of knowledge out there.”

Leading the law enforcement group are Sauschuck and Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, president of the Maine Sheriff’s Association. The treatment team will be led by Patricia Kimball, program director at Wellspring in Bangor, and Mark Publicker, an addictionologist who previously ran the Mercy Recovery Center.

The prevention and harm-reduction team is led by Eric Haram, director of Mid Coast Hospital’s Addiction Resource Center and William Paterson, substance abuse prevention project director for the University of New England’s Coastal Maine Health Communities Coalition.

It may be difficult to gauge the group’s effectiveness, Delahanty said, noting it might take six months or longer to show results. The teams will possibly host a summit early next year.

Smith said that even with the magnitude of the effort and talent of the people involved, there is no guarantee of success.

“It’s going to be really hard and we may fail miserably, but we’ve got to try,” he said.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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Twitter: @Mainehenchman