January 19, 2018
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After years of soaring meth busts, evidence of production in Maine suddenly plunges

By Callie Ferguson
Maine Drug Enforcement Agency | BDN
Maine Drug Enforcement Agency | BDN
A methamphetamine production "dump site" is investigated by the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, July 12, 2016. After years of rising meth busts, evidence of its production suddenly fell this year. But law enforcement and drug treatment officials caution that it doesn't mean the supply or demand has fallen.

The Maine Drug Enforcement Agency has found less than half as much evidence of meth production this year as last year — 56 incidents compared with 2016’s record high of 127.

But law enforcement officers and drug treatment counselors caution that the plunge doesn’t necessarily mean that supply or demand has fallen because methamphetamine, an extremely addictive illegal stimulant, can come from out of state.

Still, the sharp decline in confirmed reports of meth production reverses a four-year trend in which such discoveries increased sixfold. Last year, Aroostook County alone accounted for nearly as many confirmed incidents of meth production — 55 — as the entire state saw this year. Penobscot County was second, with 44 last year.

[Meth in Maine: A decade of thwarting supply but little to show for it]

The surge in drug agents’ meth discoveries followed the shift away from elaborate “Breaking Bad”-style production facilities to a much simpler “shake-and-bake” process of mixing easily accessible chemicals in a plastic bottle. The “one-pot” process tends to yield around 2 grams of meth, often to be sold to support the cook’s own habit, officials said.

As of 2014, the most recent year for which U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration data are available, meth-making paraphernalia was discovered more than three times as often in Maine than in New Hampshire or Massachusetts.

But Maine’s meth has been overshadowed in recent years by its opioid crisis, which claimed 185 lives in the first half of 2017, an average of one a day. Treatment counselors say they doubt that this year’s drop in meth discoveries is because of the rise of opioid addiction. They say that meth and opioids tend to ensnare different kinds of people.

Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, say they think the decline is largely due to the success of blocking the sale of over-the-counter medicine containing ephedrine, a key ingredient in meth.

In 2007, MDEA logged only 19 meth-production incidents. By 2014, the total had more than doubled — to 37.

In 2013, Maine became one of 34 states that require pharmacies to record ephedrine sales with the National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEx), which primarily serves as a way let pharmacists know when a buyer has reached the monthly limit.

Maine limits purchases of medications containing ephedrine to 9 grams every 30 days. But meth makers attempt dodge the cap by paying others to buy it.

At a Nov. 29 training in Bangor, police said they’ve had more luck catching meth cooks thanks NPLEx, which allows them to watch the data in real-time.

But Bangor police Sgt. Wade Betters and Brewer police Officer Peter Rancourt both cautioned not to read too much into this year’s drop in meth-making discoveries. Meth makers could be getting better at hiding both full-fledged labs and discarded “one-pot” mixing bottles.

Meanwhile, a threat from out-of-state traffickers looms.

Law enforcement and treatment counselors said they have observed an uptick in signs of imported crystal meth.

“When you blow up a balloon and you squeeze it at one end, the air goes to another place,” Aroostook Mental Health Services’ Peter McCorison said, referring to law enforcement’s “squeeze” on ephedrine. “We’re currently seeing more product that isn’t locally produced.”

MDEA Cmdr. Peter Arno said, “My guess is that the number of [crystal meth] cases will continue to rise. Enforcement has undoubtedly played a role in the reduction of labs we are seeing. It likely has caused [users] to search for meth elsewhere.”

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