PORTLAND — U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday made Maine a centerpiece in the federal effort to stop the distribution of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
“I want to be clear about this: we are not focusing on users, but on those supplying them with deadly drugs,” Sessions said July 13 as he introduced the new Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge, or S.O.S., to law enforcement officials at the office of U.S. Attorney Halsey Frank.
As Sessions spoke inside, a crowd of about 200 people protested the policies of Sessions and President Donald Trump outside Frank’s office at 100 Middle St.
Maine will be one of 10 federal judicial districts where the Department of Justice will add a prosecutor and coordinate efforts with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and local agencies to target manufacturers and large-scale dealers of fentanyl.
In a July 12 press release, Frank, a former columnist for The Forecaster, welcomed the new operation.
“As the chief federal law enforcement officer in Maine, my primary responsibility is to enforce the law. I am grateful that the Department is giving us additional resources to do so in the area of synthetic drug enforcement,” Frank said.
Fentanyl, an opioid, was originally mixed with heroin for distribution, but has increasingly been sold on its own. The drug and its chemical analogs are responsible in part for the increase in overdose deaths in Maine and nationally: 58 percent of the 418 overdose deaths in Maine last year, Dr. Marcella Sorg of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center reported last winter.
In 2016, Sorg reported there were 376 overdose deaths, with fentanyl and its analogs responsible for 51 percent.
Sessions took note of the local and national statistic on overdose deaths as he outlined the new program’s intent.
“We are going to arrest, prosecute, and convict these fentanyl dealers and we are going to put them in jail,” he vowed.
Sessions did not take questions about the S.O.S program, and followed his presentation with smaller meetings with local law enforcement officials.
Besides the federal districts of Maine and New Hampshire, the other districts selected for the effort to use street-level cases to build larger ones against distribution networks are in California, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Operation S.O.S. was inspired by work done by the U.S. attorney’s office in the Middle District of Florida in Manatee County, Florida, Sessions said.
“They began prosecuting synthetic opioid sales, regardless of the amount. They prosecuted 45 synthetic opioids traffickers — and deaths started to go down,” Sessions said. “As you implement this proven strategy, I am sending in reinforcements to help you.”
Operation S.O.S. is one of several efforts targeting opioid use and overdoses. The department is using data analytics to focus on possible health-care fraud related to opioid prescriptions and cracking down on illicit online drug sales, Sessions said.
While Sessions was inside, a vocal group of about 200 protesters made their voices heard outside.
The group criticized Sessions and Trump on a issues from reproductive rights to workers’ unions and immigration.
Chanting slogans like “Shame on Sessions,” “Abolish ICE,” “Vote them out” and “This is what democracy looks like,” the crowd heard from a range of speakers, including Kelley McDaniel, a Portland resident who said she fears “fascism has come to America.”
McDaniel told the crowd that “you can’t let evil grow around you” without standing up in protest. She also invoked her mother-in-law, who was a Jewish child in Germany prior to World War II.
In wrapping up her remarks, McDaniel said people who don’t like what’s happening should “make good trouble.”
Hamida Ahmed, who came to the U.S. from Kenya when she was 7 years old, said “nobody leaves home unless home is unsafe,” adding her family came to this country to live the American dream.
“We should be on the streets protesting every day,” Ahmed told the crowd, while urging the protesters to stand together and use the power of the ballot box. She also said people should not just think about themselves when they turn out to vote.
And Rob Korobkin, one of the organizers of the protest, said the weapons of the people are “our voices, our vote and our ability to move our neighbors. We can change things, we can win.”
“We are here, we are loud, we have the power and we won’t give up,” he added.
Later in the afternoon, police arrested Lucia McBee, 70, and Jessica Stewart, 39, on charges of criminal trespass. Assistant Police Chief said the arrests occurred around 1:25 p.m. after the women refused a request to stop blocking the parking garage access at 100 Middle St.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions addresses law enforcement officials July 13 in Portland, outlining a new operation to fight distribution of synthetic opioids that includes fentanyl. (David Harry / The Forecaster)
Protesters gather outside the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland on July 13, while U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks inside. (Kate Irish Collins / The Forecaster)