ROCKLAND, Maine — While the dangerous synthetic drug known as bath salts has gained attention as it is used more frequently in Rockland and Bangor, cocaine and marijuana are still the most used drugs in Maine.
The type of drugs that are the most used go in cycles, said Roy McKinney, state director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. For example, methamphetamines are concentrated largely in Aroostook County and bath salts cases are confined mainly to Rockland and Bangor.
In fact, there are MDEA officers who have never seen bath salts, according to James Pease, a Maine Drug Enforcement Agency supervisor in the office that serves Knox, Lincoln, Waldo and Sagadahoc counties.
And even where bath salts are popular it hasn’t replaced more traditional drugs that are more readily available. In the Rockland area, for instance, the painkiller oxycodone and bath salts are the most frequently used drugs, he said.
But statewide, cocaine and marijuana remain the most popular illegal drugs overall, according to McKinney. Indicative of the drug’s use are the 12.4 pounds of cocaine and crack that were seized by MDEA agents in 2011, about the same as the 13.4 pounds seized in 2007. Cocaine sells for about $100 per gram on the street, McKinney said, which translates to about $563,000 for the 12.4 pounds. As for marijuana, about 465 pounds were confiscated by agents in 2011, compared with 556 pounds in 2007. Marijuana sells for $2,000 to $2,400 per pound, which would translate to between $930,000 and $1.1 million if the 465 pounds seized in 2011 had been sold by the pound on the street, McKinney said. He added, however, that pot often is sold by the ounce for about $180 on the street, which would increase the overall value of the drugs seized.
Drug preference is cyclical, according to McKinney. In the late 1990s, for instance, many of the drug cases in Maine involved heroin but use since has dropped off, he said. McKinney did not have figures available for how much heroin was seized by drug agents in the ’90s, but said 4.2 pounds were confiscated last year.
But bath salts have captured the attention of Mainers because of the wild and often dangerous actions of bath salts users and several large bath salts-related busts.
The first warning that law enforcement officials had in the Rockland area about a synthetic drug that caused hallucinations was less than a year ago.
During the first week of May 2011, Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison issued a public warning about bath salts, saying that deputies were confronting people who were exhibiting bizarre behavior. In one instance, a man on a motorcycle stopped on Route 17, grabbed a large stick and started swinging at passing cars.
Rockland and state police soon also reported an increasing number of similar cases, including a man who drove his car into the ocean, believing he was being chased.
The drug also has posed a problem for health care providers. Trevor Libby, a 19-year-old man from Searsport, caused an estimated $30,000 in damage to the emergency room at Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport after he was taken there for treatment of suspected bath salts use in October. He became combative, threw chairs through windows and broke equipment in the emergency room.
Soon after the first reports of the drug, the governor and Maine Legislature enacted increasingly stringent laws outlawing bath salts.
Most bath salt users are not first-time drug offenders but are people who have used for a long time and often are on probation, according McKinney. They turned to bath salts because it was originally not a banned drug.
And nearly every dealer is also a user.
“None of them are getting rich; they are making money to be able to use,” Pease said.
Recent seizures of bath salts have driven up the price of the drug but it remains prevalent in Knox County, according to Pease. Last year, a gram of the drug went for about $80 on the streets; this year it has jumped to between $180 to $225.
In 2011, the first year that agents encountered bath salts, police seized 8.4 pounds of the drug, according to MDEA data.
Among the largest busts, Waterville police allegedly found more than a pound of bath salts in the vehicle of Travis Griffin, 26, of Thomaston in November, and a search of his home three weeks later turned up more. Griffin told police the drugs were manufactured in Bangor and distributed to dealers, according to court records.
But much of the bath salts are manufactured in China and then shipped to the United States, according to Pease. People are able to buy the drug off the Internet.