A case containing needles and a substance believed to be methamphetamine lays out on the desk of Sgt. Mark Barnes. While working the night shift on July 24, another officer seized the case after a pedestrian found it on Main Street in Presque Isle. Credit: Nina Mahaleris

Methamphetamine trafficking into Maine from outside of the United States is quickly replacing opioids as one of the biggest threats in the state’s drug crisis, especially in the northernmost and southernmost counties. 

The overall drug problem remains a “significant concern,” with meth, heroin and controlled prescriptions named as some of the most prevalent threats, according to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency’s 2018 annual report released in mid-August. 

While out-of-state distributors were once at the forefront of the Maine drug scene, trafficking from beyond the U.S. border, particularly in Mexico, is becoming much more common. 

Outside drug trafficking growing in some counties

In fact, methamphetamine trafficking has become one of the top concerns for some northern and southern Maine counties, according to the MDEA Director Roy McKinney. 

As meth production decreases in Maine, the state is seeing increased drug trafficking from suppliers outside of the United States, McKinney said. 

“Our drugs are coming from outside the state of Maine,” he said. “There is a conscious effort for the Mexican drug cartel to move more meth to New England.” 

The agency’s report further cited, “Dominican criminal drug trafficking” as the primary mid-level distributors of heroin, cocaine and fentanyl, and listed Mexican organized drug and crime cartels as major drug suppliers. 

“What is happening in Mexico is one lab might make several tons [of meth] in one day. The sheer amount is incredible … the amount that is coming over the border [or between points of entry] has increased significantly in recent years,” McKinney said. 

Credit: Troy R. Bennett

In 2017, the Aroostook District task force confiscated more than three pounds of methamphetamine in a single investigation, which the agency reported was possibly the largest documented meth case in Maine history at the time.  

At least until 2018, when the same task force opened another investigation in which they reported seizing at least five pounds of crystal methamphetamine, with a street value of nearly $350,000. 

In July, eight people from The County were indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly possessing and conspiring to distribute controlled substances including meth, sometime between 2017 and 2018. Their cases were still pending in the U.S. District Court as of Oct. 17. 

[Eight from Aroostook receive drug, conspiracy indictments]

“There’s a grave concern with the amount [of methamphetamine] that’s going there,” McKinney said.

But Aroostook County is not alone in the growing meth problem. 

Over the past year, the MDEA has seized 4.5 kilograms — nearly 10 pounds — of methamphetamine from around the state. 

Southern areas such as Cumberland County — Portland especially —  are also seeing increased drug presence in their communities, McKinney said. Whereas in previous years, police may have encountered meth once in awhile, they are now finding it more regularly in street-level investigations, he said. 

Numerous drug trafficking operations with outside suppliers

Opioid pill distribution and heroin both proved to be other substantial problems for Maine in 2018.

The Cumberland County task force launched an investigation in 2018 after discovering that someone was making thousands of “Xanax” types of pills with a pill press machine and distributing them throughout Southern Maine. 

Xanax is a benzodiazepine typically used to treat anxiety or panic disorders. 

The dealer was arrested after selling 1,000 pills to an undercover MDEA agent, the report said. 

The agency confiscated another 20,000 pills and after analyzing them, determined the person was making oxycodone pills and selling them as Xanax. MDEA seized more than 40 pounds of chemicals that were used to make the counterfeit pills. 

The South Central task force, which covers Kennebec County, recovered more than $110,000 worth of heroin and cocaine, and charged five people with drug trafficking offenses after discovering a drug operation at an Augusta-area hotel.

In Western Maine, the region’s task force seized 1,200 dosage units of heroin and 82 grams of cocaine base, valued at more than $45,000 during an investigation of a drug distribution operation in Jay. 

One drug trafficker from New York City was allegedly making trips between New York and Maine to restock the operation in Jay, agents discovered. The report further said the traffickers intended to distribute drugs in the greater Jay, Wilton and Farmington areas. 

Opioid deaths decline, but drug impacts persist 

While opioid deaths declined by at least 37 percent since 2017, the drug still accounted for 80 percent of all fatal overdoses last year, according to the annual Drug Death Report.

The decline in opioid deaths does not necessarily mean there are less drugs available or fewer individuals struggling with opioid use disorders, but rather it could indicate that patterns of drug use are changing around the state, the report explained. 

Credit: Contributed

Still, 354 people died from an overdose last year — 63 fewer than the year before. A total of 283 of all reported overdoses in 2018 were from opioids. 

Cumberland County, with a population of approximately 294,000, had the highest number of people die from overdose with 88 total reported — 70 of them were opioid-related. Comparatively, Sagadahoc County, which has a population of about 35,000, reported two fatal overdoses — the lowest in the state for 2018. 

The number of people charged with drug offenses stayed relatively consistent between 2017 and 2018. In 2018, the MDEA charged 554 people with offenses ranging from possession to selling or manufacturing drugs. Of the 750 drug investigations the agency conducted in 2017, MDEA charged 569 people with drug offenses. 

While it’s clear that all Maine counties are experiencing some degree of the drug problem, a few regions might be feeling its impacts more than others. 

Credit: Contributed

Last year, there were about 4.8 incidents for every 1,000 people in Aroostook County — a region that has an estimated 67,000 residents. Aroostook had 328 total drug-related incidents throughout the year, trailing just behind York County, which had 368 drug-related incidents in 2018, about 1.8 incidents per 1,000. 

McKinney said these numbers represent every service that the agency gets involved with, from conducting drug investigations to assisting local agencies with their own cases. 

MDEA also assists local agencies whenever someone dies from a drug overdose, which can add to the overall number of incidents in each county. 

Since there are just eight task forces that cover all 16 counties, the data reflects the number of incidents that each team is able to investigate depending on their own resources and staffing limitations. 

Drug investigations can be a lengthy process that may take several months and even up to a couple years to complete, but McKinney said the MDEA is committed to working with local law enforcement agencies to reduce the availability of drugs in Maine communities. 

“You may not think we’re working on a matter but we’re working continually over long periods of time,” he said.