Artist Alex Crowcroft discusses his ongoing recovery from meth addiction in a conference room at the Portland Recovery Community Center. Credit: Willis Ryder Arnold | Maine Public

Maine is bracing for a new challenge in its response to a major substance use problem. As medical providers and social systems expand treatment options for opioid use, and law enforcement continues to tackle the issue, methamphetamine use has become a growing concern. It’s more prevalent, and increasingly potent. And some users are turning to meth while still trying to manage another addiction.

Alex Crowcroft sat on the edge of an office chair at the Portland Recovery Community Center, in a space that looked a bit like a well-used study in a family home. The 33-year-old talked openly about the toll that methamphetamine addiction has taken on his life.

“I’ve overdosed. I’ve had friends overdosing in my arms. I’ve had friends dying,” he said. “And on top of that, in the past year, I’ve had three teeth removed. I’m going to have three more teeth removed. My immune system — I get sick every month now because I put my body through so much that it’s not ready to heal yet.”

And, he said, his drug use has also affected other important people in his life. “My mom recently told me that she was waiting for that phone call that I was going to be dead, which is a scary thing to hear from your mother, whom you love, who’s been there for you — and is still there for me.”

But Alex is now in recovery. And part of the process involves sharing his story and listening to the stories of other people who have struggled with substance use disorders.

“I was in another world entirely,” said Alyssa, who wished to be identified by only her first name. “It truly felt like reality was just — it was gone. And, like, hearing voices and stuff — like, it was crazy. Like ‘cuz there’d be a certain point where you would do anything for this person, and that same night, I thought they were going to kill me.”

Alyssa, 25, is also in recovery from meth use, which she said helped create a false sense of connection with other people. But now she’s found real connections with others through recovery.

“Having a community to help guide me to my best life and, like, hold my hand and love me when I can’t love myself has been a huge, huge part of, like, finding hope in this world,” she said.

“The methamphetamine support group is probably our fastest growing — our newest and fastest growing — group,” said Leslie Clark, who oversees the Portland Recovery Community Center.

Clark said meth has found a market in former users of other addictive drugs.

“What we’ve seen is people who may be on a medication-assisted treatment, who are also now using different drugs instead of heroin, are using meth,” Clark said.

And while some use meth to get high while attempting to kick an opioid addiction — others use it just to counteract the sedating effects of opioids.

“And so people who use opioids, including heroin, many of them work jobs, and have lives, and have families, and they do need to balance the lows of opioids with something so that they can be functional,” public health consultant Alison Webb said.

Perched on the edge of his chair, Crowcroft recounted the evolution of his own meth use. It started three years ago, when he was in the midst of a heroin addiction, with a crude version of the drug made in a two-liter soda bottle.

“I bought it from these backwoods people that were making it in their shack covered in dirt. I was like, ‘So this is real and it’s raw and, like, cool, nice. They’re hands on,” Crowcroft said.

In time he moved on to another version of the drug that resembles quartz crystals.

“It was just shards of crystal meth, which were inherently stronger. And from what I’ve gathered, were being shipped here from the West Coast,” Crowcroft said.

Law enforcement agencies are reporting a change in the potency of methamphetamine in the state. Special agent Jon C. Delena of the Northeast Bureau of the Drug Enforcement Administration said much of the meth seized by agents last year has been analyzed by labs and traced to sophisticated international cartels that see meth as a new revenue stream.

“We know that the cartels study the trends, just like people study the market every day,” Delena said. “And they look at areas where certain things are happening and they see vulnerabilities. And that’s what they seize upon. And that’s why they’re billion dollar industries. They have better research and development than Fortune 500 companies.”

Maine Drug Enforcement Agency officials report an increasing amount of more potent methamphetamine entering the state over the past several years. Director Roy McKinney said agents have seized the drug in York, Cumberland, Androscoggin and other southern counties, while previous seizures were contained to northern counties.

Concurrently, the Maine attorney general’s office recorded an increase in methamphetamine-related overdoses in recent years.

The number of deaths related to methamphetamine use leaped from seven in 2016 to 26 in 2018. Last year, by June, more than 17 deaths had been recorded — which suggests that the number of deaths related to methamphetamine use is rising.

But for those in recovery, including Crowcroft, help has come in the form of group therapy and community support systems. Talking about his life, he said, offers a reprieve from his history of drug use, and the damage it has done.

“And if I can continue to do that and keep that in the forefront, all of that hurt that I’ve caused myself and others, I can live with — today,” he said.

As the Portland Recovery Community Center group disbanded, Alex gave everyone in the room a hug, and headed to his job at a specialty dessert shop downtown. He will be back at the center in the next week to attend another support meeting.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.