Composite image of meth and money
Meth seizures are on the rise again across Maine. This time, however, it's not small batches of the drug cooked in small labs, but large quantities flowing into the state from a drug pipeline fueled by Mexican cartels. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

On a Wednesday morning in early May, two Presque Isle police officers responded to a car crash on Main Street. What started as a simple crash investigation changed as soon as Cpl. Stephen St. Peter and Officer Kyle White realized a large drug bust had fallen into their laps.

In that haul, they seized more than a pound of methamphetamine, in addition to crack cocaine, a loaded gun and $8,204 in cash.

Presque Isle police officers discovered more than a pound of methamphetamine in a vehicle after a crash on Main Street on the morning of May 5, 2022. Credit: Courtesy of Presque Isle Police Department

A decade ago, that much meth would have been a major headline. Now it’s becoming a common occurrence, with police sometimes seizing one, two, four or even 14 pounds of meth at a time. In the past three years alone, meth seizures by weight have risen about 215 percent.

Before that, officers in the department were more likely to see opioids such as heroin or illicit prescription pills, according to Presque Isle police Chief Laurie Kelly. But as those drugs have become harder to find, others, such as meth and the highly potent synthetic opioid fentanyl, have become “readily available.”

Meth is as prevalent as ever despite years of police work to thwart the supply, underscoring the challenges of stemming drug use through enforcement. The drop in the number of small-time meth makers has paved the way for a major surge in the drug, which is being pumped into the state by more sophisticated traffickers drawn by undiminished demand.

Supply shifts

More than 20 years ago, meth was just emerging in New England. In 1999, a little more than nine pounds were confiscated across Maine. The bulk of it, 8.8 pounds, came from Aroostook, more than any other New England county. By 2002, that had fallen to just a tenth of a pound.

The low supply and demand prompted the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency to conclude, at the time, that meth “does not pose a threat to the state.”

That didn’t stop Maine from taking a preemptive strike against meth production while the drug ravaged the West. It was among 40 states — and Congress — to pass laws by early 2006 restricting access to pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in homemade meth. Early signs suggested their response worked: The U.S. saw fewer labs, and workplace drug testing showed an apparent drop in meth use.

But the demand for the drug did not drop in tandem.

In 2011, the Maine drug control agency busted 11 meth labs across the state. Soon it was seizing record numbers of labs until reaching a high of 126 just five years later.

“Lab,” though, is a misnomer. Instead, Maine drug agents found “shake and bake” labs — which use a crude recipe that allows cooks to make meth on the go in containers as small as 20-ounce soda bottles.

The one-pot labs typically produce an ounce or two of meth at a time, according to the agency’s director, Roy McKinney. That’s often just enough to feed the addictions of a handful of people.

After the passage of Maine’s pseudoephedrine law, meth cooks adapted, using “smurfs” — groups of people who go from pharmacy to pharmacy purchasing their pseudoephedrine allotment — to get the ingredients to make the drug.

Maine drug enforcement officers work to carefully neutralize a container believed to be an active methamphetamine lab at a Brewer gas station in 2016. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

So police cracked down on the small-time cooks, and lawmakers passed more punitive measures that made meth manufacturing a felony.

By 2017, the results were apparent. The small-time cooks were out of business, and last year Maine drug agents seized just two meth labs, the fewest since 2009. It’s not just in Maine where the number of meth labs has fallen. Just 890 were broken up across the country in 2019, the most recent year for which the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has published data, down from 2012’s high of 13,657.

That victory, however, was short lived. As drug cops turned off the tap for homemade meth, major drug traffickers moved in.

In 2017, the year after meth-lab busts peaked here, Maine drug agents seized only a third of a pound of the drug from traffickers. The next year, it was almost 10 pounds. By 2021, it had reached nearly 19 pounds.

Not only is the supply growing, but the drug has become highly potent and pure, according to Ron Bonaventura, a 25-year veteran of the federal drug control agency and the assistant special agent in charge of its New England division.

That’s because meth is flowing into the Northeast from superlabs run by the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels in Mexico, and they are capable of producing several tons of the drug weekly, Bonaventura said.

He likened the drug cartels controlling the meth trade to multinational corporations, with their own boards of directors, manufacturing, distribution, security and financing. Often the cartels can change their business models more quickly than law enforcement can adapt, making it more difficult to disrupt the flow of drugs, Bonaventura said.

The volume has become so high that Bonaventura considers meth the nation’s top drug threat next to fentanyl. And the spike of both drugs is closely linked.

‘I needed to hear a message of hope’

Matt Emkey sits in his Portland living room on May 26, 2022. Emkey has struggled with meth addiction and said the drug brought him to his knees. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Matt Emkey knows well the struggle of meth addiction. Over the course of 20 years, the Philadelphia native had tried most drugs out there, but “it was meth that brought me to my knees.”

Within seven months of starting his meth use, Emkey had lost his job, apartment and driver’s license. He had contracted hepatitis C and overdosed many times.

Looking for a fresh start, Emkey came to Portland from South Florida to find sober living. Here he kicked his meth use through the 12-step program, and Emkey said he has not used it since June 2018.

When he first moved to Maine, Emkey didn’t know any other people who struggled with meth addiction. It wasn’t until spring 2019, when an acquaintance asked about meth support groups, that he realized how few resources were available for people recovering from an addiction to the stimulant.

So Emkey started a meth support group at the Portland Recovery Community Center.

Last year, the weekly meetings averaged about four to five people, but that’s grown to between 17 and 21 a week more recently, according to Leslie Clark, the executive director of the Portland recovery center, which offers about 50 volunteer-run groups for Mainers in recovery.

Other Maine recovery and detox centers also are seeing more Mainers looking for a way out from meth use.

At Milestone Recovery in Portland, 14 percent of clients who entered its detox program in April had a meth addiction, a share that’s been steadily increasing since September 2019 when they accounted for 5 percent.

What’s more, a third of the 48 clients enrolled in Milestone’s long-term care program in Old Orchard Beach are recovering from meth addiction, according to Tom Doherty, Milestone’s executive director. Just a few years ago, he said, only one or two were.

Meth is regarded as one of the most addictive drugs on the market. It hijacks the brain’s reward system and floods the synapses with more feel-good chemicals than even the most pleasurable natural high produces. Not only that, it takes longer for the body to metabolize meth than other stimulants, such as cocaine, prolonging the drug’s effects, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Complicating efforts to help people like Emkey recover, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved a medication-assisted treatment for meth addiction, according to Dan Ciccarone, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.

Some drugs, including buprenorphine and naltrexone, have shown promise for reducing meth cravings, but that use remains off-label, he said.

For now, that leaves people recovering from meth use to rely on support groups and programs like the 12-step model Emkey followed. Groups like the one at the Portland recovery center are an anchor for many people and provide much-needed connection, Emkey said.

Emkey, who recently earned his undergraduate degree in leadership and organizational studies from the University of Southern Maine, aspires to run a recovery nonprofit to help others begin their journey to sober living.

“For me, four years ago, when I was almost dead, I needed to hear a message of hope and recovery from someone else who went through the same struggle,” Emkey said.

The fourth wave

Ciccarone, who has studied drug markets for the past 20 years, has come to see the resurgence of meth in the U.S. as a “late-stage effect” of the opioid epidemic.

A growing body of research bolsters his case. In a 2018 article in the journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers found meth use was rising among people who use opioids, concluding that “efforts limiting access to prescription opioids may be associated with an increase in the use of methamphetamine.”

That shift is partly due to meth prices falling, while the illicit pills and heroin supply has tightened. Ciccarone theorized that people also are moving to meth to reduce their exposure to deadly fentanyl that’s increasingly contaminating the opioid supply.

Now meth is contributing to what Ciccarone called the fourth wave of fatal overdoses, with meth-related overdoses nearly tripling between 2015 and 2019 among Americans ages 18 to 64. Maine isn’t an exception.

After declining from 2017 to 2018, more Mainers have been dying every year from overdoses. Meth use — often paired with another drug, such as fentanyl — has been a primary driver in the resurgence of overdose deaths, which reached a record high of 632 last year.

Since 2017, meth-related overdoses have risen from 16 to 166. As a share of all overdoses, meth accounted for more than 26 percent of deaths in 2021, up from less than 4 percent five years earlier.

Bonaventura, the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s New England division, echoed Ciccarone, saying the cartels are making a conscious shift into marketing meth to divert attention from fentanyl, which is becoming more prevalent in the west as meth makes gains in the east.

In this Jan. 31, 2019, file photo, fentanyl and meth seized by Customs and Border Protection officers at the Nogales Port of Entry are displayed during a press conference in Nogales, Arizona. Credit: Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star via AP

While Bonaventura sees the laws controlling access to pseudoephedrine as a key victory against homegrown meth, Ciccarone sees it as a failure of drug policy that inadvertently created an even worse problem.

“We caused this. We put pseudoephedrine behind the counter and shifted production to Mexico,” Ciccarone said.

Americans are “enamored” with the supply-side approach to drug control, he said.

But it’s not a tap that can just be turned off, as history has shown. It’s something that researchers such as Ciccarone call the “Iron Law of Prohibition.” As lawmakers and police cut off access to drugs, their weight and volume falls, while their potency rises. During Prohibition, bootleggers transitioned from beer to high-proof liquor. More recently during the opioid crisis, the supply shifted from illicit pills to heroin to fentanyl.

It’s the paradox behind U.S. drug policy, according to Ciccarone.

“We’ve pushed the curve to the most potent-per-volume product. We’ve done the same thing with methamphetamine,” he said.