Penobscot County has seen its share of Maine's drug trafficking cases rise in the past two years as the county has also seen more of its residents die from drug overdoses. Credit: Keith Srakocic / AP

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Penobscot County is home to the highest percentage of Maine’s drug trafficking cases this year, a figure that has nearly doubled over the past two years, according to data from the state’s court system.

It’s another sign of how the state’s deadly drug problem continues to take a disproportionate toll on Penobscot County, which has also seen overdose deaths rise more quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic than elsewhere in Maine.

The county’s share of drug trafficking cases this year is nearly double its share of Maine’s population.

While Penobscot County’s disproportionate share of overdose deaths and problems with addiction aren’t new, there’s no apparent explanation for why the county has seen such a pronounced rise in illegal drug activity, according to prosecutors and law enforcement officials.

But one thing they are sure about is the amount of drugs and money being seized is higher than it ever has been, with out-of-state dealers coming into the state as major players in drug distribution networks.

So far this year, 22 percent of the drug trafficking and aggravated drug trafficking cases in Maine have been filed at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor, according to the judiciary. In 2019, that figure was 13 percent, a percentage closer to Penobscot County’s share of 11 percent of Maine’s population.

Penobscot County had seen 16 percent of the state’s overdose deaths this year through the end of August, according to data compiled by the Maine Attorney General’s office and the state’s Office of Behavioral Health. That compared with 19 percent of the state’s overdose deaths last year, and 14 percent in 2019.

2020 was the deadliest year yet in the opioid epidemic in Maine, and 2021 is on track to be even deadlier.

Public health specialists have linked the increase in overdose deaths in part to fentanyl — a synthetic opioid that’s 100 times more potent than morphine — being cut into a greater variety of drugs. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the workings of addiction recovery programs that rely on in-person meetings and in-person accountability measures such as medication counts and urine testing.

Fentanyl was barely visible on Maine’s drug scene in 2018, when Peter Arno left his job as commander of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency in the counties north of Augusta to work in the family business. He returned to his old position early this year to find just about everything about drug trafficking in Maine had changed.

“Heroin doesn’t exist any more. It’s been replaced by fentanyl,” he said recently. “Addiction hasn’t gone away but the sources have changed. In 2018, we dismantled 100 meth labs. They are virtually non-existent now.”

The amount of drugs and cash being seized also is much higher than it was three years ago, he said. Dealers who used to sell one drug now sell three or four different illegal drugs at a time.

“There’s 10 times the profit margin today and with an opportunity for that much money, the rewards outweigh the risks for the out-of-state suppliers,” Arno said.

The rise in the volume of drugs seized since the first of the year in Penobscot County is higher than in other counties, according to the Maine attorney general’s office, which oversees the prosecution of drug trafficking cases.

There has been both an increase in the number of seizures and the quantity of drugs involved, according to the attorney general’s office. Investigations that led to the seizure of more than 200 grams, nearly half a pound, used to be rare, occurring maybe a few times a year. They are now occurring on a monthly basis.

There are also regular, almost weekly, seizures of 50 grams, nearly two ounces, which also are significant.

One recent example of a large seizure took place July 28 during a raid on a Hermon garage the MDEA had been investigating for drug activity over the previous three months. Two of the six people arrested are part of a drug trafficking ring based in Detroit, Michigan, according to court documents. The other four allegedly were obtaining drugs for distribution in Hancock County.

The Maine Drug Enforcement Agency seized 4 pounds of fentanyl, three-quarters of a pound of methamphetamine and more than 3 ounces of crack cocaine during a July 28 raid of a garage and apartment in Hermon. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Drug Enforcement Agency

Investigators seized from the garage and apartment on Cedarbrook Road 4 pounds of fentanyl, three-quarters of a pound of methamphetamine and more than 3 ounces of crack cocaine. Agents also found $19,000 in cash, a loaded AK-47 rifle and two loaded semi-automatic handguns.

There’s a “susceptible” population in Penobscot County for drug dealers to reach out to, because there are drug treatment and mental health services available in Greater Bangor that aren’t as widely available in northern and Down East Maine, theorized defense lawyer David Bate of Bangor, who has represented people charged with drug trafficking.

“When people leave those programs, they often have the same problems that caused them to come to Bangor in the first place,” he said.

The lawyer also said that there needs to be more emphasis on treatment in the criminal justice system, especially for those convicted of Class A aggravated trafficking, which carries a mandatory four-year minimum sentence.

“I don’t know if prosecutors in Penobscot County are charging aggravated trafficking where other counties would not,” he said, “but if the present system — where the emphasis is on four years’ minimum incarceration without adequate treatment resources before and after arrest — was working, then we would not be having this conversation.”