ALFRED, Maine — Two New York men died in southern Maine during Fourth of July weekend from overdoses of what York County Sheriff Bill King said was likely “a bad batch” of heroin.

Deputies who arrived at the home the men rented said one man already had died, and they took the other to a local hospital because he had snorted the same heroin, King said Thursday.

King went to the hospital to try to find out where the heroin came from.

“All he would tell me was he didn’t know [where it came from], it was the first time he’d ever tried it,” King said.

At 10:15 p.m., King left the hospital. He was awakened by a phone call not four hours later: The man, who had been released from the hospital, was dead.

“He went back to the same residence, went into the bathroom, snorted the same heroin and died,” King said. “That’s the power of addiction.”

Another man in York County died of a heroin overdose the following night, King said.

“The man had been living in a sober house but couldn’t afford it,” King said. “He thought he had kicked it and he came to Maine — but somehow I guess he brought some heroin in case he needed it.”

Statewide problem

While a spike in methamphetamine manufacturing arrests has focused attention on that illicit drug, heroin slowly and insidiously has been tightening its grip on Maine in recent years, with law enforcement and public health officials repeatedly warning of a crisis for the last several years.

Last year, heroin accounted for 32 percent of all arrests made by the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, according to MDEA Commander Peter Arno, who oversees the northern half of the state.

“My guess is we’re on track this year for another 10 to 15 percent increase,” Arno said Friday. “My guess is it won’t be long before heroin will account for 50 percent of [arrests].”

The heroin is arriving in Maine from out-of-state dealers — primarily in Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut. Instead of selling to Mainers who would travel to those states, they have begun bringing the heroin to Maine themselves, “setting up shop” all across the state, Arno said.

Heroin is available all over the state, Arno said, and as far north as Aroostook County, where significant amounts of heroin were seized in April and May from men who allegedly traveled from Florida and Massachusetts to sell it here.

Fort Fairfield police Chief Bill Campbell told the Bangor Daily News in April that the Florida man arrested for allegedly trafficking more than 2 ounces of bulk, unpackaged heroin had set up his operation right in the middle of the community.

On June 4, agents from the MDEA Portland and Alfred offices arrested a Massachusetts woman at a Kittery rest stop when she allegedly brought 23 grams of heroin, worth $6,000 to $7,000, into Maine, according to Brunswick police Detective Rich Cutliffe, who works with the MDEA.

According to Cutliffe, an investigation allegedly revealed that 24-year-old Stephany Feli-Diaz of the Methuen-Lawrence area of Massachusetts had been delivering heroin to Maine for at least the past year.

“A couple of months ago, we arrested a fellow from Brooklyn [New York] for aggravated trafficking in Cornish, Maine,” King, in York County, said. “It’s a beautiful little community, and this guy’s here with eight to 10 fingers of heroin. I asked him, ‘Why did you come to Cornish, Maine?’ He said that’s where they told him to come. He said, ‘I’m a heavy user, they gave me the stuff and told me to bring it to a guy.’

“I tell people in the small towns, ‘It doesn’t take long for someone to set up shop and the next thing you know, they will get your kids addicted,’” he said.

‘No safe batch’

Unlike prescription opioids, such as OxyContin, there’s little quality control with heroin. While Maine Attorney General Janet Mills was clear in 2014 that “there is simply no safe batch, no safe dose, no safe amount of heroin that you should put into your body,” heroin varies in potency.

“Somebody who maybe buys from the same supplier month after month after month comes to expect a certain result from the injection of that heroin, but the fact of the matter is the potency — the amount of heroin — in the dosage fluctuates,” Arno said. “Sometimes it’s diluted, sometimes it’s extremely potent.”

Often, heroin is diluted, or cut, with fentanyl, the most potent opioid available, 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin. Sometimes, Arno said, people end up buying pure fentanyl with no heroin in it, without realizing — dramatically increasing the risk of overdosing.

“While they’re already playing Russian roulette using heroin, with this new fentanyl-laced heroin, they’ve really upped the stakes,” Eric Haram, outpatient behavioral health director at the Addiction Resource Center in Brunswick, said last July. The fentanyl makes the heroin “a much more pure and stronger product, essentially being driven to the person’s brain on a rocket booster.”

And according to data released Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heroin overdose deaths nearly quadrupled in the U.S. from 2002 to 2013, the most recent year for which data are available.

The rate was stable from 2002 to 2006, then began to increase gradually through 2009. Then, “beginning in 2011, the overdose death rate increased sharply from 1.4 per 100,000 to 2.7 per 100,000 in 2013 — a 296 percent increase since 2002,” according to the CDC

Maine alone saw 57 overdose deaths from heroin in 2014, up from 34 the year before, Mills said in May. Those who died of heroin overdoses ranged in age from 18 to 88.

And the fatalities are not the stereotypical “junkies” Arno saw when he began working for the MDEA 25 years ago. The CDC data show significant increases in heroin use across a growing number of demographic groups, including women, the privately insured and persons with higher incomes.

Having just returned from a national conference of drug enforcement agencies, Arno said,

“By and large, with the exception of a few states, the biggest threat to communities nationally is the increase in prevalence of heroin.”

King, who has seen three heroin deaths within the last week, said his concern lies with the loved ones left behind.

“People are missing the devastation it leaves for parents,” he said. “It changes people’s lives. People who have never imbibed any type of illegal substance. That should be our motivation to help. … We’re ringing the bells saying, ‘This has got to be a priority.’ We’re losing the battle. We’re losing people.”