Prescription drug abuse blamed for increase in Maine crime

Posted June 19, 2012, at 10:37 a.m.
Last modified July 13, 2012, at 1:25 p.m.
Maine's Public Safety Commissioner John E. Morris speaks with Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, in February 2011 at the state house in Augusta.
Joel Page | AP
Maine's Public Safety Commissioner John E. Morris speaks with Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, in February 2011 at the state house in Augusta.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Mainers addicted to drugs — diverted prescription drugs in particular — are breaking the law to feed their addiction and have caused a troubling increase in the state’s crime rate, Public Safety Commissioner John E. Morris said Tuesday.

“Drugs are driving the problem,” the commissioner said in a telephone interview. “Reports to me from law enforcement throughout the state confirm this. Prescription drugs are truly the driving factor.”

The overall crime rate in Maine increased by 5.4 percent between 2010 and 2011, “the largest jump since 1975,” Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Stephen McCausland said in a press release.

Bangor, Portland and 132 other municipal, county and state law enforcement agencies in Maine — along with others around the country — provide data each year for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

The statewide data, which include murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle thefts and arson, are compiled by the Maine Department of Public Safety’s uniform crime reporting division.

The figures released Tuesday “show that 36,248 crime index offenses were reported to police in 2011 compared to 34,407 during 2010,” McCausland said.

Crime increased in every category during 2011 except for robberies, which decreased slightly, from 416 in 2010 to 406 in 2011. At the same time, however, the number of pharmacy robberies has jumped twofold, Morris said.

“In 2008, there were two pharmacy robberies in the entire state,” he said. “In 2009, there were four and last year there were 24 — a huge jump. This year, up to today, there have been 23.

“If pharmacy robberies continue at the rate they are, 14 percent of the pharmacies in Maine will be subject to a robbery,” Morris added.

For the third year in a row, the number of burglaries in Maine also increased. A total of 8,079 burglaries were reported in 2011, a 10 percent increase over 2010, when there were 7,343. That was 9.4 percent higher than in 2009, when there were 6,711 burglaries, according to the UCR data posted on the Department of Public Safety’s website.

“I contend that prescription drug addicts, who are unfortunately sick with this addiction, are also the primary cause of the increase of burglaries throughout the state,” Morris said. “These aren’t traditional burglaries.

These are people sick with addiction breaking into houses to get prescription drugs. Unfortunately, their targets are those infirm or the elderly who they think are on prescription drugs.

“If you couple that [burglary figure] with bank robberies and convenience store robberies, which we know are connected to people trying to get money for oxys, it just compounds the problem,” he said.

Oxycodone is the drug of choice with drug-using Mainers nowadays, replacing OxyContin, a time-released version of oxycodone, which was popular with addicts a few years back, Mike Wardrop, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration resident agent for Maine, has said. Prescription drug addiction is a national problem, the DEA agent said.

“Pills were always an abused form of drug, but when doctors started to prescribe OxyContin, it took over. We were done,” Portland police Lt. Gary Rogers has said.

Purdue Pharma began making OxyContin in the United States in 1996 and touted the time-release pain medication as a miracle drug that required only two pills a day for pain management, Wardrop said.

“We were the first state where Pharma marketed OxyContin and we never recovered,” the DEA agent said.

Other crimes in Maine that increased in 2011 include:

• Larceny-thefts, up 3.5 percent.

• Aggravated assaults, up 16.3 percent.

• Simple assaults, up 15.3 percent.

• Arson, up 6.1 percent.

• Motor vehicle thefts, up 5.5 percent.

• Domestic violence assaults, up 4.6 percent

• Rapes, up 6.4 percent.

Homicides also increased — from 24 in 2010 to 28 in 2011.

“Crime in the rural areas increased by 3.5 percent in 2011, while crime in the cities and towns increased by 6 percent,” McCausland said.

The data released Tuesday did not break down the figures by community, but two Bangor Daily News stories from April about crime in Portland and Bangor show that felony crimes have been increasing in those two cities over the past decade.

Crime data from 2010 and 2011 for Portland were not available Tuesday, but robberies and murders in Maine’s largest city steadily increased between 2000 and 2010, according to statistics reported by the Illinois-based Advameg Inc. and its website city-data.com.

Advameg’s website tracked only 56 robberies at the beginning of the decade and 129 at the end, although 2010′s figure is down from a 2006 crest of 149 such crimes. There were no homicides in Portland in 2000, between one and three each year between 2001 and 2007, and four each in 2008 and 2009. In 2010, there were six.

Portland robbery and murder figures can likely be traced back to increased drug use, Rogers said.

“It seems 15 years ago we were seeing bank robberies, but now we’re seeing pharmacy robberies,” he has said.

Theft, burglary and rape figures over the decade zigzagged in Portland, with no apparent trends. Thefts, for instance, numbered 2,120 in 2000; 2,547 in 2002; 2,332 in 2004; 2,709 in 2006; 2,157 in 2008 and 2,246 in 2010.

Portland saw fewer cases of assault and arson in 2010 — 74 and seven, respectively — than at any point in the previous decade, the Advameg data shows.

The high numbers for those crimes came in 2005, when the city experienced 125 cases of assault, and in 2008, a year when it saw 34 arsons.

Auto thefts declined annually from 2006 until 2010, according to city data, sliding from 193 in 2006 to just 76 in the last year for which numbers are officially available.

Bangor, which was the epicenter of an explosion in the use of the synthetic drug bath salts last year, saw drug-related crimes jump from 154 in 2010 to 237 for 2011, Police Chief Ron Gastia has said.

“With [bath salts use] increasing, we started to see increases in thefts and property crimes,” the veteran officer said.

Bath salts began to surface on the streets of Bangor in February 2011, and by the following July — when its ingredients were banned in Maine — it had grown into a regional problem in parts of the state.

It has caused users to hallucinate, convulse, have psychotic episodes and thoughts of suicide, Gastia has said.

Bath salts is just one of several drugs that Bangor police typically deal with. Diverted prescription pills, especially oxycodone, are another major problem, as are street drugs such as cocaine, the police chief said.

While the overall number of felony crimes declined in Bangor from 1,781 in 2010 to 1,742 in 2011, the total number of violent crimes went up, Gastia said.

Violent crimes — murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault — increased by 35 percent, with 51 reported in 2010 and 69 in 2011, according to data compiled by Bangor police for the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

One of the biggest increases in recent years has been robberies, which differ from thefts because they involve violence or threats of violence. The number of robberies in Bangor between 1991 and 2008 averaged 19 a year and never exceeded 25 in those 18 years. But in 2009 the number jumped dramatically, to 35, and has stayed above 30 for the last three years.

The data also show that since 2009, at least half of the violent crimes in Bangor have been robberies, with 35 of the 69 violent crimes in 2011 falling into that category.

“I believe that there are two primary reasons for the increase,” Gastia said. “First, property crime typically increases in a bad economy. The second reason, in my opinion, is related to drug activity. In some cases, robberies occur as people attempt to steal drugs from those who have them, and in some other cases, money is sought to obtain drugs.”

Theft is, by far, the biggest crime in the Queen City, the police chief said.

“Probably better than half, possibly two-thirds [of calls] have to deal with thefts,” said Gastia, calling it “the primary preventable crime that happens in Bangor.”

In addition to the increased crime figures statewide, drugs users in Maine also are overdosing at an alarming rate on prescription drugs, and the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency now arrests more people with diverted prescription drugs than all other street drugs, Morris said.

“For the third year in a row, drug overdose deaths have exceed traffic fatalities in the state,” the commissioner said. “In 2010, there were 163 drug deaths associated with prescription drugs … and there were 161 traffic fatalities.”

Sixty people died in drug-related deaths in Maine in 2000, but by 2009 that number had increased to 179, according to data collected by Marcella Sorg, a University of Maine forensic anthropologist and lead investigator in two major studies that looked at drug-related mortality patterns in Maine.

“The biggest game in town is prescription drugs,” she has said.

Agents with the MDEA have for years chased dealers of cocaine, heroin and other street drugs, but nowadays most of their investigations involve prescription drugs, Morris said.

“It has changed,” the commissioner said. “Prescription drug abusers have become the leading issue for drug agents. Forty-three percent of the MDEA arrests [last year] were on prescription drug diversions.”

The MDEA seized roughly 10,000 doses of controlled prescription drugs in 2009, more than 44,000 doses in 2010 — nearly half of which came from one pharmacy burglary — and in excess of 18,700 doses last year, MDEA director Roy McKinney has said.

The state’s leaders are not sitting on their hands waiting for a solution, according to Morris. He said there are ongoing meetings among representatives of pharmacies, law enforcement agencies, the MDEA and other concerned groups to come up with solutions to address Maine’s drug problem. Gov. Paul LePage and Attorney General William Schneider created the Maine Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force, which is hosting “drug summits” to discuss ways to curb the state’s addiction, and Morris said he is starting to work with pharmacy operators about updating policies.

“We’re not heading in a very good direction, … but we’re going to come up with some solutions if we all work together,” Morris said.

BDN writer Seth Koenig contributed to this report.

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