By Paul Feely

Gov. Maggie Hassan has declined a request from Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas that she declare a public health state of emergency over the heroin epidemic in the Queen City and the rest of the state.

In a letter sent to Gatsas Wednesday, Hassan also states she is unable to use $2.5 million in Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) funds -- which must be returned to the federal government if not used by Oct. 1 -- to fund a drug court in Manchester.

The request was sent by Gatsas to Hassan last Friday after discussions with Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard, Fire Chief James Burkush and Manchester Health Director Tim Soucy.

"While we recognize, and appreciate, that many efforts are underway that focus on both the short- and long-term, I believe that a greater sense of urgency is needed," wrote Gatsas. "At this point in time I am asking that you declare a public health emergency, just as you did with (the synthetic cannabinoid) "spice" nearly a year ago."

A declaration of a state of emergency by the governor would trigger the Department of Health and Human Services public health powers under RSA 21-P:53 or any other applicable statute to investigate, isolate or quarantine and require the destruction of the commodity in question -- in this case, heroin.

Such a declaration would remain in effect for 21 days unless terminated earlier or extended by further order.

"I have consulted with the attorney general on this matter and declaring a state of emergency would not allow us to re-direct a federal grant, nor would it allow us to enter into a long-term funding arrangement necessary to support a drug court," writes Hassan. "In addition, since heroin is already an illegal substance, declaring a state of emergency would not provide new powers to remove the drug from the street as the declaration did with spice. I agree with you that this epidemic is an emergency, but unfortunately not one that can be solved in 21 days."

Gatsas said Wednesday night he would keep fighting to bring a drug court to Manchester.

"I will continue working to bring an end to this epidemic, because people are dying," said Gatsas.

In his letter to Hassan, Gatsas had requested funds for a drug court.

"The benefits of the drug court are proven in other communities," he wrote. "It is my understanding that there is a $2.5 million appropriation that needs to be disbursed by October 1, 2015 or returned to the federal government for the express purpose of battling this epidemic; it is my belief that the drug court in Manchester would be an appropriate place to expend these funds."

In June, the Hillsborough County delegation turned down a request to use $443,000 of the $4 million county surplus to fund a drug court.

William Hinkle, communications director for Gov. Hassan, said the money Gatsas refers to must be spent in full by Sept. 30, 2015, and not earmarked for certain uses.

"In terms of your request to re-direct federal grant funds to establish a drug court in Hillsborough County North, I have spoken personally with SAMSHA officials on this issue and have been informed that the grant funds you refer to cannot be re-directed to a drug court," writes Hassan. "There are federal grants that are made available to fund drug courts throughout the country, including a specific SAMSHA grant once a drug court has been established."

Hassan mentions the state will be "putting a team together in the next month" to begin the application process for a federal grant through the Bureau of Justice Assistance to establish a drug court in Hillsborough North.

On Monday, Gatsas announced a 60-day heroin action plan, a 13-point program that city officials have 60 days to implement.

The recommendations include a prevention program for the schools, a drop-box to deposit unused prescription medications, a drug court and treatment options of every suspected overdose patient.

The plan does not include continued expansion of Medicaid, which under the Obamacare law would provide addiction treatment for people.

In her letter to Gatsas, Hassan stresses the need to extend substance abuse treatment coverage to the existing Medicaid population.

"These efforts are critical to tackling this epidemic and ensuring that we have the treatment options that will make a drug court, as well as the new pilot New Hope for recovery program in Hillsborough County North successful," writes Hassan.

(c)2015 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.)