Credit: George Danby / BDN

Amid Maine’s worsening heroin epidemic dominating headlines, the state’s methamphetamine problem hasn’t gotten any better.

The Maine Drug Enforcement Agency has busted 21 meth labs so far this year — including a suspected meth lab on Hammond Street in Bangor on Wednesday — compared with nine in the first four months of 2015. Drug agents last year seized a record 56 meth labs, and at this rate, 2016 could be another record-setting year.

While Maine has taken pains to crack down on meth over the last decade, the powerful stimulant continues to flow through the state. But data suggest that demand for the drug isn’t rising in tandem.

So why are more meth labs popping up in Maine? Even as the state has cracked down on the production and distribution of the drug, meth cooks and users have simply changed tactics to maintain a supply for even a marginal demand. A meth recipe, known as “ shake and bake,” has made it easier for people to get around the complex chemistry of “ Breaking Bad” to quickly cook small batches of meth, most of which feed the addictions of just a handful of people.

War on meth

The Northeast has been largely spared the more devastating consequences of meth that have ravaged the Midwest and West Coast since the 1980s. But law enforcement in Maine have encountered a greater number of meth labs than their counterparts in the rest of New England.

In recent years, most of these have been amateur “shake and bake” labs that produce small quantities of meth in under 30 minutes, usually to feed the habits of a handful of people. That doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous. Just a pound of home-cooked meth can produce five to six pounds of toxic waste. The labs are prone to explosions. And cleaning up after them is no easy task.

“Shake and bake” labs are the latest innovation in a black market that has evolved in the face of a continuing legislative and law enforcement crackdown aimed at eradicating it.

Maine took a pre-emptive strike against meth in 2005 with one of the first laws in the nation to curb access to the drug’s main ingredient — pseudoephedrine — with the aim of putting local meth labs out of business. This included moving the cold medicine behind the pharmacy counter and barring people from buying more than 9 grams per month.

After the Maine law passed, traffickers fed Mainers’ appetite for meth by smuggling the drug across the Canadian border until the MDEA successfully cracked down on them, cutting off that supply by 2009.

But by then, Maine meth cooks had caught on to methods to get around the pseudoephedrine restriction. Cooks recruited ” smurfs” who went from pharmacy to pharmacy to purchase their allotment of the cold medicine, often in exchange for meth.

Coupled with the emergence of the easier “shake and bake” recipe, meth remained readily available. The number of meth labs busted by the MDEA has spiked in recent years, from six in 2010 to 56 last year.

In 2013, the Legislature tried to stamp out smurfing by requiring retailers to log sales of the cold medicine used to make meth in an electronic tracking system. This system can block an individual from going to multiple pharmacies to buy more pseudoephedrine than allowed by law. Previously, retailers maintained written logs, and smurfs could easily go from pharmacy to pharmacy to buy more than their legal allotment.

Even with this technological fix, the supply of meth in Maine has persisted in order to meet the demand for the drug.

Indeed, state and federal laws limiting access to meth ingredients have succeeded only in temporarily reducing meth supply, according to a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office.

Rx for Sudafed

The persistence of “shake and bake” meth labs prompted lawmakers in Oregon and Mississippi to pass laws requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine. Maine lawmakers considered a bill in 2011 to adopt a prescription-only requirement for the cold medicine, but it died in committee.

After Oregon’s law took effect in 2006, law enforcement there busted 66 meth labs, a number that fell to a low of seven in 2014. When law enforcement there do find meth labs, they tend to be concentrated along the border, fueled by pseudoephedrine funneled in from out of state.

But the Oregon law may have made little difference in bringing about this decline. What the meth lab seizure data show is that meth production was already declining before the law took effect. Between 2004 and 2005, meth lab busts fell from 632 to 232.

A closer look at meth lab seizure data in neighboring California, Washington, Idaho and Nevada reveals that between 2004 and 2014 the entire region experienced a huge decline in local meth production.

Initially, Oregon saw a slowdown in the flow of meth. Even when law enforcement agencies across the country saw meth lab busts surge in 2008, Oregon police continued to encounter fewer labs.

Yet, meth remains as available in Oregon today as it was before the prescription-only law took effect because traffickers from Mexico flooded Oregon with meth after the local supply dried up, according to a 2014 report by the Oregon Department of Justice. As yet another sign that supply crackdowns never wipe out meth, Mexico had banned pseudoephedrine in 2007.

Drug agents in Oregon seized 578 pounds of meth in 2014, a dramatic increase from 157 pounds four years earlier, according to the Oregon Department of Justice report.

How high is demand?

It’s hard to tell how widely meth is used in Maine. The state last conducted a drug and alcohol use survey in 2004, when 4 percent of Mainers had reportedly used meth at least once.

Even though meth lab busts have spiked since 2010, these are small, do-it-yourself labs that usually supply a handful of people rather than feed a large distribution network. So the spike doesn’t necessarily suggest more Mainers have developed an appetite for the drug.

The data that are available suggest that the growth in meth labs doesn’t necessarily signify a similar increase in use. Last year, 43 Mainers sought treatment for meth addiction, compared with 61 in 2006. The number of Mainers seeking treatment for meth addiction has generally trended downward over the last 10 years save for spikes in 2010, 2011 and 2014.

Among younger Mainers, meth use appears to be uncommon and declining, according to the Maine Integrated Youth Survey. Use among high schoolers across the state between 2009 and 2015 fell from 7.3 percent to 3.3 percent.

Public health officials in several states have rolled out education campaigns with the aim of reducing meth use among teens. The Montana Meth Project, for example, uses an aggressive campaign of television, internet and radio ads that depict the graphic health consequences of meth use. In a 2008 report, the Montana attorney general credited the program with reducing the prevalence of meth use among teens from 8.3 percent in 2005 to 4.6 percent in 2007.

The 2015 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey suggests teen meth use has continued to decline in that state; only 3 percent of Montana teens reported using meth at least once in the last year.

Based on this success, seven other states now participate in the Meth Project. Maine hasn’t launched a similar campaign, but Healthy Aroostook Drug Free Communities is considering an education campaign modeled after the Montana Meth Project aimed at reducing teen meth use in the Maine county hardest hit by meth.