HOULTON, Maine — When three people were charged in Houlton last month with trafficking in methamphetamine after the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency searched a home on Military Street, it marked the 14th methamphetamine manufacturing site in Maine that the MDEA lab team has processed since 2012. It was also the ninth site in Aroostook County, according to Darrell Crandall, MDEA division commander.
Crandall said that MDEA officials have not pinpointed an exact reason for why the majority of the meth labs have been located in The County. While some have guessed it could be The County’s rural location or its close proximity to the Canadian border, Crandall said during a recent interview that he doesn’t really believe that.
“I don’t think the border has anything to do with it and I’m really not sure its our rural location,” he said from the MDEA’s Houlton office. “It isn’t like a lot of these labs are being hidden out in the woods. Some of them have been found right on the main streets in Presque Isle and Houlton. I think its just supply and demand. If people want the methamphetamine, there are going to be people out there to supply it to them.”
In two of those cases, referrals had to be made to the state Department of Health and Human Services because children were in the homes at the time. During the recent meth bust in Houlton, a toddler was in the home. Agents seized strips of lithium metal, a highly flammable component of methamphetamine, that were hidden inside a child’s shirt near where the child slept.
State law has changed to take the drug pseudoephedrine, which is an essential ingredient of methamphetamine, off the shelves in businesses. In an effort to stem the tide of methamphetamine manufacturing, buyers of pseudoephedrine now have to request it from a pharmacy and they must show identification. The state also limits the amount of pseudoephedrine that an individual can purchase during the course of a month.
Aroostook County District Attorney Todd Collins acknowledged last summer that it worked for a time, but said that law enforcement and prosecutors in The County had begun seeing more drug traffickers asking family, friends, acquaintances and hired help to secure pseudoephedrine in several small, individual purchases. The practice is called “smurfing.”
“Its one of the biggest criminal countermeasures,” Crandall acknowledged. “They just have six or seven people go out and buy pseudoephedrine for them so they can keep making the meth. Some states require people to have a prescription for pseudoephedrine, but Maine does not.”
The work for the MDEA does not end when the agents arrest the alleged perpetrators. The team must clean up the meth lab, which contains dangerous chemicals and comes at a cost of thousands of dollars to the agency. The agents must use protective hazmat gear such as disposable suits and gloves and overtime pay and vehicle use factor into the overall expense.
Cleaning up just four meth labs last year cost the agency $16,081, according to figures provided by the MDEA.
At this point, according to Crandall, methamphetamine arrests topped the lists of MDEA apprehensions in Aroostook County in 2012. According to figures provided by Crandall, 37 percent of its arrests were for meth charges, followed by 24 percent for pharmaceutical charges. That was followed by 11 percent for bath salts and the remainder for other drugs.
At the same time, meth lab busts have decreased in the past few months.
“From August to November in The County, we have only had one meth lab bust,” said Crandall. “Unfortunately, that could be because we have seen a surge in synthetic cathinones [bat h salts] in the region.”
Crandall said that the MDEA is working to be more visible in order to get more tips from the public to keep drugs off the streets. He said late last week that he believes it is working.
“I think we are getting more tips from the public,” he said. “At the same time, it remains an ongoing battle. But I think that the work we are doing, the visibility and the education efforts are working in our favor.”
Information on drug crimes may be reported to MDEA at 800-452-6457, at MDEA’s website at www.maine.gov/dps/mdea or on MDEA’s smartphone application for iPhone and Android at MyPD.