AUGUSTA — A manyfold increase in the number of makeshift laboratories making methamphetamine. Hundreds of babies born addicted to drugs. A nearly threefold jump in overdose deaths attributed to heroin.
Those facts, and more, make up part of the drug scene in Maine. Law enforcement on Thursday sketched that picture for lawmakers who gathered for the Maine Sheriff’s Association Legislative Breakfast Series at the Senator Inn & Spa.
“I’m learning a lot about all of this,” said Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop. “I never knew the extent of the problem.”
Maine Drug Enforcement Agent Jason Pease offered grim details of that problem, beginning with the number of makeshift methamphetamine laboratories cropping up around the state, particularly in rural Aroostook County. The Maine Drug Enforcement Agency last year dismantled more than 20 laboratories used for making methamphetamine.
“Years before, we in the single digits,” he said.
Each of those laboratories, which create a potentially deadly cocktail of gases and heat, poses a threat to those operating them, and those such as Pease who are assigned the task of dismantling them. Maine DEA Director Roy McKinney said it can cost up to $12,000 to dispose of each laboratory. That cost does not include the $1,000 suits worn by law enforcement, which are supposed to be worn only three times before being tossed out.
“We’re trying to stretch that as much as possible,” McKinney said.
Despite the potential dangers, the market for methamphetamine continues to lure manufacturers. Pease said there has been an increase in people from out of state moving to Maine to set up shop. Pease ran into one person who left an Indiana prison only to come to Maine and teach people how to make methamphetamine. Even those who do not use the drug are building laboratories in hopes of making extra money, Pease said.
“A lot of people are experimenting with it,” he said.
That includes users. Pease said one case involved a utility worker who was logging long hours. The worker used methamphetamine to stay alert, but the drug also produces wild hallucinations. When a sheriff’s deputy asked the lineman where he had been, the lineman, who was alone in the truck, told the deputy to ask his friends in back.
“The paranoia is huge with these people,” Pease said. “Sometimes they become very violent. Other times they’re very meek and mild.”
Lt. Chancey Libby, of the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office, said opiate abuse is increasing markedly in his county, as it is in Kennebec County, including abuse of pharmaceuticals, such as OxyContin, and heroin.
“Heroin has pretty much taken over because the pharmaceuticals are so high,” Libby said, adding that a single pill sells for about $40 in Oxford County.
There has been a marked increase in the number of heroin-related overdoses and overdose deaths in Maine because purity levels of heroin can vary greatly, and because people build up a tolerance to drug, causing them to use more to feel the same effect. The state attorney general last month announced that of the 163 overdose deaths in 2012, 101 were related to opiate use. Of those, 28 were attributed to heroin, four times the number of heroin deaths in 2010 and 2011.
The heroin market, like that for methamphetamine, is being infiltrated by out-of-staters who can sell heroin for more in Maine than they can in their own states.
“They’re coming up here because there’s more of a profit,” Libby said.
Pease said in his area along the midcoast about 90 percent of the abuse is connected to the commercial fishing industry. Fisherman return from a trip to sea flush with cash they can use to buy drugs, he said. Those who fish from ports in Massachusetts often return with friends, some of whom belong to gangs looking to crack the Maine market. Gangs, as they have for years, hold a presence in Bangor, Lewiston and Portland; but they have expanded their territory, Pease said. Many of those involved have lengthy criminal records that include violence, he said.
Gang activity is now present as far north as Houlton and is taking hold in the capital. In December, MDEA arrested 10 people on trafficking charges in Augusta after searching a home at 1 Penley St. Seven of those arrested listed Pennsylvania addresses. Police said at the time the Chicago-based Almighty Black P. Stones used the house to funnel illegal drugs into Maine.
Seized during the search at the home in the Eastern Avenue neighborhood were 45 grams of heroin, with an estimated street value of $10,000, and about 5 grams of what authorities believed to be methamphetamine, according to the Maine DEA.
“Augusta is our problem area with organized crime,” Pease said. “It’s nonstop.”
Libby said the gang dealers move around and the gangs will send replacements if they feel law enforcement closing in.
“A lot of times by the time we hear about it, they’re taking off,” Libby said.
Besides heroin and methamphetamine, police also are seeing an increase in bath salt use. The synthetic hallucinogenic can cause users to stay up for hours on end and behave erratically.
“Bath salts make people do crazy things,” Pease said. “When it comes into an area, you know it.”
Profit, as with heroin and methamphetamine, is an enticement to dealers. Five pounds of bath salts purchased through the mail for about $300 then sell for as much as $30,000, Pease said.
Combating the drug industry requires a multi-pronged approach. Pease said he supports Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to add 14 new drug agents, but the judicial end of law enforcement also must change. Pease said it is discouraging to spend countless hours on a case and get a trafficking conviction, only to have a judge impose a light sentence.
“When someone gets a slap on the wrist or a deferred disposition … they’re not really being held accountable,” Pease said. “We need to figure out where we’re going in the future of drug enforcement.”
Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said most of the crime in Maine is driven by illegal drug use. Habits can cost as much as $600 a day to sustain. The cost to the system is equally staggering and comes in the form of health care, law enforcement and incarceration. Liberty, who also supports LePage’s plan to increase the number of drug agents, said the state must take a three-pronged approach that includes education, enforcement and treatment.
Eliminating or even merely curbing the illegal trade is a monumental challenge, Liberty said. Drug abuse cannot be tied a particular economic or social class. While officials have a solid grasp of how drugs are brought into the state and dispersed, clear explanations for why people begin using drugs in the first place proved much more elusive.
“A lot of people like to experiment,” Libby said.
He said young people will experiment with drugs and gradually to move to more potent substances. Peer pressure sometimes leads to those first tentative steps. Often the young people are simply imitating their parents’ behavior. Libby said he has made it a habit to ask users how they got hooked.
“A lot of them tell me they started in high school,” he said. “I think it starts at a young age.”
Craig Crosby — email@example.com