The opioid epidemic dominated a Tuesday morning radio forum with the two candidates for district attorney in Cumberland County.

Democrat Jon Gale and independent Jonathan Sahrbeck participated in the two-hour conversation hosted by WGAN News Radio. They are both hoping to succeed current District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, who has held the job since 1991 and is not seeking re-election. The winner will be the top prosecutor for Maine’s busiest criminal docket, shaping policy and making decisions about big cases.

The debate topics ranged from sexual assault cases to immigration, but the longest chunk of the two hours was devoted to their ideas for addressing drug-related crime. Both Gale, a criminal defense attorney from Portland, and Sahrbeck, a current Cumberland County prosecutor who lives in Cape Elizabeth, identified the opioid crisis as a pressing concern.

Gale said he wants to see more people who struggle with addiction diverted to treatment. Sahrbeck said that already happens when appropriate, and he focused on the need for more preventative work. They also disagreed about the effectiveness of safe-injection sites for drug users, an idea that has been discussed in Portland before.

Sahrbeck raised the topic, saying he puts more stock in medically assisted treatment and other programs for people in recovery.

“Narcan saves a life, but it doesn’t exactly help somebody,” he said. “Because helping somebody is getting that person into treatment.”

Gale said he believes that facilities where people are allowed to inject drugs with medical supervision would reduce overdose deaths.

“We have to save them first and direct them toward treatment,” Gale said. “It can’t possibly be a permanent thing, but it is a stopgap measure to save lives. I think that what we need is new approaches.”

A question about immigration showed another difference between the two candidates. Last year, federal immigration agents arrested a Somali asylum seeker at the Cumberland County Courthouse, which was not a common practice before President Trump ramped up immigration enforcement.

Sahrbeck said he would view a defendant’s immigration status with compassion, but that he also needs to consider public safety.

“To me, if there is a legal process to take somebody into custody, whether it be federal law or state law, then that needs to be recognized,” he said. “The courthouse cannot be a sanctuary for people to escape legal process.”

Gale said he did not want to discourage anyone from seeking justice in the courts, and he would consider the risk of deportation when handling cases that involve nonviolent and low-level offenses.

“Where we do diverge is having ICE hanging out in the courthouse to arrest people as they come in,” Gale said, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The candidates also fielded questions about sexual assault, especially in the #MeToo era when more women are coming forward to share their own experiences. Both said they believe that the district attorney’s office should take allegations seriously and investigate them fully. They credited the experienced victim/witness advocates in the office for their role in that process.

The Republican candidate – defense lawyer Randall Bates of Yarmouth – withdrew from the race in September. His name will still appear on the ballot because the deadline had already passed for candidates to have their names removed.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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