Heroin Epidemic Grips Maine

Sheriff Cites Calais, Jonesport, Danforth

By Ruth Leubecker

A roundtable summit on heroin abuse in Maine and a separate state session occurred back-to-back last week, both acknowledging a growing crisis in the state.

While all the experts agree that the misuse of heroin knows no economic, class or lifestyle boundaries, Washington County in recent years continues to be hard hit.

“The heroin part is getting worse,” says Washington County Sheriff Barry Curtis. “It’s cheaper, and it’s more available. Every town is complaining. I’d say we hear more about it in Calais, Jonesport and Danforth. But it’s a widespread thing, and we see it through the whole county.”

“In 2001 and 2002 it was pills, pills, pills in the opiate population,” says Chief Deputy Mike Crabtree. who has an extensive background in drug law enforcement. “When you get an opiate population, heroin is a natural economic progression because it’s cheaper.”

According to Crabtree, heroin sells for $30 to $35 dollars a bag, and oxycodone at $120 a pill. The economics of maintaining an addiction are easy to see. “It’s a constant battle. And a constant changing battle,” Crabtree says of the area war against drugs. “Right now we’re starting to have a great influx of out-of-state traffickers. It’s all about money. Many (of the traffickers) are not users, but they’re preying on our misery. They can buy it for $3 to $5 a bag, and their turnaround up here can be $30 to $35 a bag.”

A roundtable discussion hosted by Sen. Angus King in Brewer last week focused on recovery, and strategies relating to those who provide treatment and law enforcement. Rep. Chellie Pingree, National Drug Control Policy Director Michael Botticelli and US Attorney Thomas Delahanty also spoke at the forum. Once again, these speakers, like others before them, stressed that this is “not just a law enforcement issue,” citing the need for more treatment centers and working partnerships.

While the King forum attracted about 100 concerned Mainers, Gov. Paul LePage’s day-after meeting was closed to the public and the media, focusing on input solely from law enforcement, government officials and hospital administrators.

“We need to be looking at people’s lives that are out of control as they come through the courthouse doors,” said Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Court Leigh Saufley on the news that night. Saufley, who attended the LePage meeting, says she is strongly advocating the expansion of drug courts throughout Maine, believing that routing offenders to treatment and counseling instead of sending them to jail is more beneficial to everyone.

“In my opinion treatment is always cheaper,” says Crabtree, “but you can’t rule out enforcement because you need something to get into treatment.” Therein lies the problem, as a prevalent shortage of treatment options short-circuits Maine’s ability to address the crisis.

“Addicts land here once, twice, three or even four times or more before they really hit bottom,” says Crabtree, who has eight years with MDEA and another two working exclusively with drugs in Washington County. “By the time they hit rock bottom they have no vehicle, no license, and they’ve alienated most of their family … so now the question is how do you get to Portland? (Which is likely the closest treatment center.) And you can’t hang out with the same people anymore, so who do you hang out with, where do you go?”

Washington County, with its 3,122 square miles and eight full-time officers, is not conducive to winning the war. “We’re in a county the size of Rhode Island with a population the size of Bangor,” he reflects. “There’s just not enough manpower. And everyone needs to understand that this problem belongs to all of us. This is not a police problem. It’s a community problem. We’re going to pay for this one way or the other. We just have to decide the best way.”

While stigma and access to care remain huge barriers, last week’s meetings could signal the beginning of action. “If LePage has a meeting and local areas are notified, then we’ll go,” says Curtis, “because I feel we have as big a problem as anywhere in Maine, or bigger.” 

The sheriff feels such meetings could be imminent to discuss the availability of federal dollars for treatment centers. “We’re hoping for that, because right now we’re keeping our budgets under control but we’re not combatting the problem,” he explained. “I’m going to keep pushing for manpower. The state police are also low on manpower.”

Crabtree recognizes a countywide, but also agrees with the sheriff. “Here it’s Machias, Calais, places where people tend to gather,” he says. “When I was working up north it was Houlton, Caribou, Presque Isle. It’s always the bigger places that tend to attract the drugs.”

Although five to seven law enforcement officers are on the road in Washington County on any given day, it’s a daunting run at best. The county is divided into three slots, with slot one running from Steuben to Jonesboro, slot two from Jonesboro to Robbinston and slot three from Robbinston to Danforth.

“When you break it into slots, each officer has 624 square miles,” explains Crabtree. “Normally speaking we have one or two working day and night.”

It is, however, a shared responsibility. “It doesn’t matter what uniform you wear in Washington County. Game warden, state police, local police, whatever. We’re all on the same page,” says Crabtree. “The main focus is to tackle the drug problem because it fuels a lot of other problems. The drug courts play a vital role, but we really need more treatment centers. Even though you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink … We have to figure that part out.”

 

Maine, as a state recently targeted in response to the explosion of heroin use, stands to benefit from a federal strategy focused on public health and safety. Under this plan the Obama administration will work with regional officials to increase access to treatment and uncover the sources of heroin trafficking.