A decade ago, Maine took a pre-emptive strike against methamphetamine, the drug that ravaged parts of the West Coast and Midwest in the 1980s and 1990s, passing one of the first laws in the nation to curb access to the drug’s primary ingredient, pseudoephedrine.
Despite a law enforcement crackdown and legislative hurdles designed to curb the growth of meth supply, Maine has seen meth continue to grow a decade later.
Law enforcement is again preparing to ramp up the offense against meth. But little has happened over the past decade to make treatment for meth addiction more widely available. That’s where public health officials see room for growth — on the sides of the equation aimed at reducing demand for the drug.
Meth-related offenses accounted for 9 percent of all Maine Drug Enforcement Agency drug arrests in 2014, up from 3 percent five years earlier. Since 2009, meth and heroin are the only two drugs for which related arrests have increased.
What’s most troubling for law enforcement is the sharp rise in meth production in homegrown labs that have popped up across the state, but especially in southern parts of Aroostook County.
A decade ago, the MDEA seized five labs. By 2014, however, that number surged to 38; nine were dump sites where those cooking meth had discarded their chemicals and materials. Already this year, the state has seen nine seizures, two of which were dump sites.
“We see these [labs] all across Maine, but when it comes to double digits, it’s the [rural] counties,” MDEA Director Roy McKinney said.
Penobscot and Aroostook counties have been hardest hit. Since 2005, law enforcement have seized 43 meth labs and dump sites in Aroostook County and 12 in Penobscot. Most southern counties have each seen four seizures on average in that time.
Much like out west, meth use is more prevalent in rural parts of Maine. A 2007 policy brief by the Maine Rural Health Research Center found that young adults age 18 to 25 living in rural towns were twice as likely to use meth than their urban counterparts — 2.9 percent and 1.5 percent, respectively.
War on drugs
Meth lab seizures hung in the single digits for the first decade of the 2000s. Then, production climbed. Law enforcement seized six labs in 2010, five in 2011, 12 in 2012, 20 in 2013 and 38 in 2014.
Legislative action — specifically, Maine’s 2005 law restricting access to the decongestant pseudoephedrine — is one reason production fell.
But demand didn’t necessarily drop in tandem. Initially, in the absence of homegrown meth, traffickers hauled in the drug from out west or across the border from Canada, according to McKinney. In response, the MDEA cracked down on Canadian meth.
By 2009, the supply was all but cut off, McKinney said. But homemade meth returned to fill the gap.
As time passed, cooks found ways around the restrictions — “smurfing,” for example, having groups go from pharmacy to pharmacy purchasing their pseudoephedrine allotment. And a crude and simple recipe called “shake and bake” — which allowed cooks to make meth on the go in containers as small as 20-ounce soda bottles — offered a way around the elaborate, sophisticated chemistry of “Breaking Bad.”
While Maine has yet to see the level of activity that raised alarms in states out west, McKinney said “we’re hoping to lower that number.”
The MDEA has changed tactics in response to the growth in meth labs. McKinney said that the agency is taking aim at anyone involved in any capacity in the drug’s production, from the cooks to the smurfs.
“If you’re involved in methamphetamine production at any level, you will deal with the consequences,” he said.
The MDEA and local police are getting some help with that. The federal government awarded Maine a $905,000 grant last year to hire four new drug cops just to combat meth. Meanwhile, Gov. Paul LePage wants a stronger offensive in the war on drugs, including heroin and meth. An $8.1 million plan in his proposed budget calls for seven new MDEA drug cops, four new district court judges and 22 district attorneys to arrest and prosecute drug dealers.
No silver bullet
Meanwhile, public health officials are attempting to reduce demand for meth in the first place.
A 2014 report by the Maine Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services declared slowing meth use one of the office’s primary objectives.
Last year, of the 11,324 statewide admissions for addiction treatment, 150 were meth-related. Of the 2,381 admissions for addiction treatment reported so far this year, 91 have been for meth.
But treating meth addiction presents distinct challenges, one of which is a lack of rehab facilities, according to Dr. Vijay Amarendran, director of outpatient services at Acadia Hospital in Bangor.
For many meth users, the treatment they need may be hard to access because the rural areas where they live aren’t equipped to offer it, according to John Gale, health policy research associate at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine.
Unlike other drugs, such as heroin, there is no medication, such as methadone or Suboxone, available to curb cravings while undergoing treatment, Amarendran said, though trials are underway for one drug, Ibudilast.
Still, both Amarendran and Gale said that psychosocial or residential treatment, if offered, could show promise by helping a user develop skills to cope with life without drugs.
To try to stop the demand for meth, the Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services runs the Maine Methamphetamine Prevention Project and the Meth Watch. The Meth Watch is a voluntary program created as a part of the 2005 law that retailers can work with to raise awareness about meth.
According to Geoffrey Miller, associate director of Prevention and Intervention Services at the Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, the program engages with Maine communities to spread awareness of meth use and educate retailers on spotting a “smurf” to keep the ingredients from getting in the hands of cooks.
Miller, however, acknowledged that the programs don’t have the amount of funding needed to do more with meth prevention.
Other states have found success through education programs such as the Meth Project. In Montana, for instance, the program gets its message out through an aggressive use of television, radio and Internet ads, and it boasts reducing adult meth use by 72 percent between 2005 and 2007. (But the extent to which the change is attributable to the Meth Project or supply-thwarting legislation restricting access to the drug’s key ingredient, pseudoephedrine, isn’t clear.)
The Montana attorney general concluded in a 2008 report that continued focus on education and prevention would cause further reduction in meth use.
Public awareness is a key for any strategy to stop the spread of meth, Miller said.
“We need to look at a comprehensive strategy,” he said. “Law enforcement is a piece and so is prevention.
“There’s no silver bullet.”