February 20

Sheriff’s group says heroin, meth abuse rising in Maine

County sheriffs and state lawmakers held a joint session in Augusta for an overview of the state’s illegal drug scene.

By Craig Crosby ccrosby@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

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.

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Unholy alliance: Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty says most crime in Maine is driven by illegal drug use.

Staff file photo by Andy Molloy

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.

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