Maine: Crystal meth resurfaces as increasingly deadly threat

A highly pure form of the drug has been flowing into the region, raising fears about overdoses and violence.

Two types of methamphetamine have found their way into Maine: on the left, a high purity crystalline form and, on the right, a pill form, photographed Friday at the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency in Portland.

Two types of methamphetamine have found their way into Maine: on the left, a high purity crystalline form and, on the right, a pill form, photographed Friday at the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency in Portland.

Highly pure crystal methamphetamine is flowing into Maine and New England at an unprecedented rate, alarming police and substance abuse recovery advocates who say the drug has contributed to added violence at Portland’s homeless shelter and an increasing number of overdose deaths statewide.

Front-line workers at the Oxford Street Shelter have in recent months seen an uptick of violent interactions with people who they suspect are using crystal meth, leading to injuries of staff and guests at the 154-bed facility. Next week, staff will receive more training to help handle the unpredictable behavior that follows methamphetamine use.

“At the shelter, we’ve seen a drastic shift over the last year,” said Aaron Guyer, Portland’s social services administrator. “What we’ve seen really is an increase of erratic and violent behavior.”

Criminal trespass notices, which can temporarily bar someone from the shelter for up to a year for breaking shelter rules, have increased 50 percent from 2018, and about half of the notices were for assault on a guest or a staffer, according to statistics released by the city.

Statewide, overdose deaths attributed to methamphetamine are also on the rise. Last year, 26 people died of methamphetamine-related overdoses, or 10 more than in 2017. In the first quarter of 2019, the latest period for which data are available, methamphetamine killed eight people and accounted for 11 percent of all drug-related deaths in that period, according to the Office of the Attorney General.

The violent outbursts that meth produces are a product of how the drug affects the body, doctors say. While heroin and fentanyl depress central nervous system and respiratory activity, methamphetamine is a powerful synthetic stimulant that rapidly produces feelings of euphoria followed by hours of energetic, obsessive behavior that can lead to hallucinations and psychosis. Users sometimes stay awake for days or weeks at a time; with extreme, long-term use of methamphetamine, drug-induced psychosis can be permanent.

“Everything is on edge and ready to go,” said Dr. Jonathan Fellers, an addiction medicine psychiatrist and medical director at Crossroads addiction treatment center who treats people with methamphetamine use disorder. “It can also lead to paranoid thinking and hallucinations, so people can misperceive what is going on around them, and maybe even act on that. People become very suspicious.”

For a 38-year-old Portland resident, Matt, methamphetamine use produced a delusion that he was doing fine and was in control of his life, when the reality was far different.

“I hadn’t worked in three months, I was about to be evicted and I lost 50 pounds,” said Matt, who asked that only his first name be used for fear he would face discrimination for his past drug use. “I could not come to grips with the truth that once I started (using) I lost my power of choice.”

Matt said his drug addiction began with pharmaceuticals that were prescribed to him by a doctor, and his first exposure to stimulants was in college, when a fraternity brother gave him Adderall, which is prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. He used it to stay awake for five days during their pledge week.

Matt said he has been trying to stay clean since a family intervention in 2010 and is currently 17 months drug-free. He came to Portland in the summer of 2018 for recovery after he overdosed on a drug cocktail that included methamphetamine, heroin and other drugs. He said he’s been able to stay sober with the help of a 12-step program and now works professionally to help other people in recovery.

There are many others like him in the state. When Matt arrived in Portland in 2018, there was no meeting in Maine for people recovering from methamphetamine addiction.

“I contacted Crystal Meth Anonymous, and they said the closest was in New Hampshire,” Matt recalled.

Now, at the Portland Recovery Community Center on Forest Avenue, the crystal meth/amphetamine meetings are the fastest-growing 12-step recovery group offered by PRCC, which often hosts meetings with 50 people, said executive director Leslie Clark.

“It’s challenging because it’s just a terrible drug,” Clark said. “The impact on people physically and on their brain, the kind of psychosis and violence is more unique.”

Besides an increase in violence at the shelter, methamphetamine use has been linked to a recent high-profile assault. In July, a 37-year-old Bridgton man was reportedly high on methamphetamine and had been awake for at least two days when he beat and stabbed a couple in their 70s inside their lakefront home, nearly killing them. Police at the time did not identify a motivation for the attack, and it was unclear whether the alleged perpetrator knew the victims.

That same month, police in Portland said a man who was high on methamphetamine was hallucinating when he jumped into Portland Harbor to “cool off” before officers wrangled him out of the water unharmed. And in June, officers seized 112 grams of the drug during a traffic stop in the Bayside neighborhood and charged a Westbrook man with felony drug possession; the same man was arrested again in July, also in Bayside, with 56 grams of meth and a loaded Glock handgun.

And last month, Maine Drug Enforcement Agency officers charged a Brunswick man with transporting 108 grams of crystal methamphetamine to Maine from Boston on an Amtrak train.

Users of the drug pay $80 to $100 per gram, according to the MDEA. That’s typically enough for someone to get high a couple of times, but everyone’s response to drugs is different. The cost is on par with other stimulants, such as crack and powder cocaine.

The crystals, which also are sold in pill form, can be crushed into powder and then snorted, smoked or injected. Users can become addicted quickly, seeking more of the drug to avoid the crash that comes when it wears off.

Police say the drug is flowing into the United States from Mexico, where drug cartels produce vast quantities using industrial-scale equipment, making a crystalline product that is more potent than that produced by the “one pot” method of making methamphetamine at home.

After the drugs are smuggled from Mexico across the Southwest border, Dominican street gangs in Boston, Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts, as well as Bridgeport, Connecticut, distribute them to midlevel dealers throughout New England, according to an annual report produced by the MDEA.

“It’s the same network, transportation and all, that brings us heroin, fentanyl and cocaine,” said MDEA director Roy McKinney. “Out West, they’ve been battling it for a long time. In New England, we’re seeing more of that over the last few years.”

As importation of the higher-quality drug from Mexico has increased, police have seen a decline in homemade meth production, in which over-the-counter cold medicine, pseudoephedrine and household chemicals are combined in a violent reaction. That method can produce about an ounce of methamphetamine at one time, McKinney said, and the quality is often lower than the Mexican cartel version.

MDEA agents responded to 126 meth labs or meth lab dump sites in 2016, the highest number recorded in a single year. In 2017, agents found 58 labs, and in 2018, the number declined to 51 labs, according to the drug agency. So far this year, MDEA agents have responded to 33 labs and are tracking toward another annual decline.

In the same period, seizures of the purer form of meth have increased. In 2017, MDEA agents initiated 103 meth-related investigations and seized 5.6 ounces of the drug, an amount smaller than a can of soda. Last year, agents initiated about the same number of investigations – 105 – but seized 9.9 pounds of methamphetamine, including a single seizure of more than 4.5 pounds.

Through the end of September of this year, MDEA agents had initiated 60 meth-related investigations and recovered 3.3 pounds of the drug, according to the agency.

Vermont man gets probation, fine for buying Maine pot

Charles Caliri, 71, of Woodstock, told the judge he had “no excuses” for his actions.

2019-11-01

PORTLAND — A federal judge sentenced a Vermont man Wednesday to three years of probation and fined him $10,000 for buying a kilo of marijuana in Lewiston to distribute to friends in Vermont.

Charles Caliri, 71, of Woodstock, Vermont, told U.S. District Court Judge George Z. Singal he was “ashamed” and “humiliated” and that he had “no excuses” for his actions.

“I broke the law and I’m guilty of that,” he said.

Caliri had been charged with possession with intent to distribute marijuana, a crime punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. He pleaded guilty in July.

He said he suffers from anxiety and hasn’t slept well over the past year since he was charged with the Class D felony.

Rather than buying his pot in Vermont legally, he said he’d hoped to save some money by coming to Maine.

“I will never, ever do it again,” he told the judge. “It’s been a rude awakening.”

Judge Singal told the time-share salesman that just because he was aware that others had done something similar, didn’t make it right.

“Everybody does it” and “It’s a stupid rule” are childish sayings, Singal said. “We have to set an example for younger people,” he said, noting the defendant was around his age.

Singal said Caliri had been “dumb” by making a deal “with a bunch of criminals” and that by giving them money, he was assisting them to “do worse things.”

His attorney, Peter Rodway, told the judge that marijuana has become widely accepted in society and increasingly legalized throughout the country.

“I guess that’s what bootleggers were saying when they were prosecuted under federal law” during Prohibition, Singal said, adding most states have not decriminalized the drug.

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Joyce wrote in court papers that a car with Vermont plates was spotted leaving the Sabattus Street home of Richard “Stitch” Daniels in February 2018. A Maine State Police trooper stopped the car in New Gloucester. Police found a “distributable amount” of marijuana and $18,000 in the car.

Daniels, who was charged after a Feb. 27, 2018, raid in the Twin Cities area by drug agents and police that ensnared more than a dozen suspects, including businesses, is expected to plead guilty to drug charges next week in federal court.

Joyce wrote that a drug trafficking organization cultivated marijuana at numerous locations in Androscoggin County under the guise of Maine’s medical marijuana program, including sales to out-of-state customers. The organization also grew marijuana for making butane hash oil illegally. Daniels was a member of the group that was distributing marijuana illegally, Joyce wrote.

BBC: San Diego State University suspends fraternities after student dies

Dylan Hernandez smiling at the cameraThe death of Dylan Hernandez was confirmed on Monday evening

San Diego State University has suspended 14 fraternities following the death of a 19-year-old student who had allegedly attended a fraternity event.

Dylan Hernandez was taken to hospital on Thursday morning, the day after the event, and died over the weekend.

Six Interfraternity Council (IFC) groups were already suspended and four under investigation prior to the latest incident, the university said.

San Diego State University police have opened an investigation into the death.

A fundraiser organised in memory of Dylan Hernandez has already raised more than $25,000 (£19,490).

The page says Dylan was “an outgoing, light-hearted and goofy person who had so much love to give to everyone he met. He never failed to make everyone in the room smile and his laugh was infectious”.

The San Diego medical examiner said Mr Hernandez was found without pulse and not breathing by his roommate in their dorm room on Thursday morning.

It listed the date of death as Friday, but the university said he had died with his family by his side on Sunday.

Six of the university’s fraternities were already under suspension, which occurs when there is a “perceived concern for the health and safety of a member”, according to the university.

A statement from the university said the investigation by university police had “uncovered information which alleges that a fraternity was involved in possible misconduct”.

Fraternities in the US have come under much scrutiny in recent years, most recently in the case of Timothy Piazza, a 19-year-old student who died after a fraternity event at Penn State University in 2017.

He suffered internal injuries after falling down stairs during a fraternity initiation.

During the process of trying to join a fraternity, students are often put into activities or situations designed to cause embarrassment, ridicule or risk of harm, which is called hazing.

Hazing rituals are often harmless, but in some cases can turn into extreme bullying, physical violence and sexual abuse.

At least one hazing death has been reported every year in the US since 1959.

Since 2000, there have been at least 70 student deaths attributed to hazing.

Hazing and initiation ceremonies are widely banned, but continue to be prevalent in universities across the US.

The Tim Piazza case: People “have to see the damage” of hazing

What is a fraternity?

A fraternity is a social organisation at a college or university, founded on a set of principles that members must abide by and mostly designated by a grouping of Greek letters.

A fraternity usually means male members, and a sorority female, although many women’s and mixed organisations also use the term fraternity.

Undergraduates “rush” the fraternity they want to join by going to fraternity events and getting to know members. If the fraternity approves, they will give them a “bid” – an invite to the next stage.

Potential members then go through a “pledging” process to prove their value, through challenges based around loyalty and trust – a process that can also include hazing.

If the individual completes the pledge process, they become active members of the fraternity for life.

BBC: Brain implants used to fight drug addiction in US

“Earlier this year, the UK’s Royal Society warned of the ethical dangers of merging machines and humans, and were especially concerned about the plans of technology firms such as Facebook and Elon Musk’s Neuralink which have both announced research to develop commercial products.”

Dr Rezai and his teamDr Ali Rezai and his team performed the procedure earlier this month

Patients with severe opioid addiction are being given brain implants to help reduce their cravings, in the first trial of its kind in the US.

Gerod Buckhalter, 33, who has struggled with substance abuse for more than a decade with many relapses and overdoses, has already had the surgery.

Lead doctor Ali Rezai described the device as a “pacemaker for the brain”.

But he added it was not a consumer technology and should not be used for “augmenting humans”.

Gerod BuckhalterImage copyrightWVU MEDICINE HOSPITAL
Image captionGerod Buckhalter has struggled with addiction for years after being prescribed opioids for a football injury when he was 18

Mr Buckhalter had his operation on 1 November at the West Virginia University Medicine Hospital. Three more volunteers will also have the procedure.

It starts with a series of brain scans. Surgery follows with doctors making a small hole in the skull in order to insert a tiny 1mm electrode in the specific area of the brain that regulate impulses such as addiction and self-control.

A battery is inserted under the collarbone, and brain activity will then be remotely monitored by the team of physicians, psychologists and addiction experts to see if the cravings recede.

So-called deep brain stimulation (DBS) has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for treating a range of conditions including Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and obsessive compulsive disorder. Some 180,000 people around the world have brain implants.

X-ray of Gerod BuckhalterImage copyrightWVU MECIDINE HOSPITAL
Image captionThis X-ray shows the brain implant being inserted

This is the first time DBS has been approved for drug addiction and it has been a complex trial, involving many teams, including ethicists, psychologists and many regulators.

Over the next two years the patients will be closely monitored.

Dr Rezai told the BBC: “Addiction is complex, there are a range of social dynamics at play and genetic elements and some individuals will have a lack of access to treatments so their brains will slowly change and they will have more cravings.”

“This treatment is for those who have failed every other treatment, whether that is medicine, behavioural therapy, social interventions. It is a very rigorous trial with oversight from ethicists and regulators and many other governing bodies.”

He points to figures which suggest overdoses are the main cause of death for under-50s in the US.

“Over half of patients relapse. We need to find solutions because it is a life-threatening situation and something which impacts family and loved ones.”

Gerod Buckhalter and familyImage copyrightWVU MEDICINE HOSPITAL
Image captionMr Buckhalter with his family ahead of his operation

West Virginia has the highest age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths involving opioids in the US. In 2017 there were 49.6 such deaths per 100,000 people, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Earlier this year, the UK’s Royal Society warned of the ethical dangers of merging machines and humans, and were especially concerned about the plans of technology firms such as Facebook and Elon Musk’s Neuralink which have both announced research to develop commercial products.

Neuralink has now applied to start human trials in the US, with electrodes inserted into the brains of patients with paralysis.

And Facebook is supporting research that aims to come up with a headset that can transcribe words at a rate of 100 per minute, just by thinking.

Dr Rezai is sceptical about consumer tech firms getting involved in this area.

“I think it is very good for science and we need more science to advance the field and learn more about the brain. This is not for augmenting humans and that is very important. This is not a consumer technology.”

“When it comes to applications, it needs to be heavily regulated. This is not like getting a flu shot or a tattoo. Surgery has inherent risks and is not trivial. It is only for those with chronic disease who have failed all other treatments and are without hope.”

Maine finally ready to take applications for marijuana businesses

The Office of Marijuana Policy announced it will begin accepting applications for growing, manufacturing and retailing on Dec. 5, one of the few remaining steps before the recreational market opens in March.

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After three years of delays, Maine is just about ready to begin licensing recreational marijuana businesses.

The Office of Marijuana Policy, which will oversee roll out of the adult-use market, will begin taking testing lab applications on Nov. 18, and start accepting cultivation, manufacturing and retail license applications on Dec. 5.

“The Office of Marijuana Policy has worked … to develop and institute regulations that we hope will serve as a model of how to properly regulate marijuana for the rest of the country,” Erik Gundersen, director of the office, said on Monday. “The goal has been to put forth the best rules and regulations possible.”

The state’s nascent marijuana industry has been waiting since the 2016 legalization vote to go operational. The three other states that legalized recreational marijuana that year – California, Massachusetts and Nevada – rolled out there regulatory structures, but Maine stood still.

The start of state licensing will represent a symbolic victory of sorts for some, but in towns that are limiting the number of local marijuana businesses, Dec. 5 marks the start of an all-out sprint.

State law requires local approval before the Office of Marijuana Policy will issue any final marijuana licenses.

In first-come, first-served towns, local marijuana entrepreneurs will have to obtain their provisional state license before they can apply for one of the few local licenses that are up for grabs.

In these towns, a delay in obtaining a provisional state license could derail the applicant’s hopes of setting up shop where they have bought a warehouse, or leased retail space from a marijuana-friendly landlord.

Other municipalities have set no limit on the number of marijuana licenses they will issue, or plan, like Portland, to hand out a limited number of retail licenses based on a scoring system.

Anyone who wants to apply for one of the state marijuana business licenses, or work in a cannabis business, must get a state-issued identification card. The cards require a criminal background check. Applications are now available on the Office of Marijuana Policy website.

Mark Barnett, the owner of Higher Grounds, a CBD coffee shop on Wharf Street in Portland, also serves as a spokesman for the Maine Craft Cannabis Association. He is planning to apply for a marijuana license and says he does not have any issues with the conditions, such as the criminal background check, that are going to be imposed by the states.

The office will use the information gathered in the background checks to decide if an applicant or their employees satisfy the character requirements written into the state law. For example, certain felony convictions would rule an applicant out.

Barnett said most people in the industry believe that marijuana should be a fully legalized substance because it is safer than alcohol or nicotine.

“It hasn’t sat well with anyone that a relatively benign substance is being treated as a public health threat,” he said. “Everyone wishes this could have been a more free and open situation.”

But Barnett said the background checks and ID cards are not catching anyone by surprise since the state has been working on regulations for months.

“It’s a very difficult industry, and it’s being made doubly difficult with all these regulations,” Barnett said. “I would have preferred a lighter-touch approach.”

The state’s new adult-use rules don’t go into effect until December, but the Office of Marijuana Policy wanted to start helping prospective licensees prepare to enter the emerging industry now so it would have more time to respond to applicants’ questions.

The office began the staggered rollout of program applications Monday because that is when it completed final adoption of its adult-use program rules. These rules create the regulatory framework for marijuana licensing, compliance and enforcement.

The state projects it will begin collecting its first recreational marijuana sales taxes in March 2020.

From legalization to legal sales, Maine is inching toward the slowest rollout of adult-use sales in the United States so far. Economists say the three-year wait for stores to open will have cost Maine more than $82 million in taxes and 6,100 industry jobs.

After the legislative rewrites, gubernatorial vetoes and contractual snafus, regulators are saying Maine will record its first adult-use sales on March 15, or 1,223 days after voters narrowly approved full-scale legalization at the polls.

Maine’s recreational cannabis market will top $158 million in sales its first year and almost $252 million in its second, according to research from New Frontier Data, a national marijuana analytics consulting firm.

Maine: Fatal accident on I-95 in Howland; 30-year old Ted MacArthur of Fort Fairfield, rest in peace.

State Police say the passenger was not wearing a seatbelt when he was ejected from the car and pronounced dead at the scene.

HOWLAND, Maine — The Maine State Police say 30-year-old Ted MacArthur of Fort Fairfield died in a single-vehicle accident on I-95 south near exit 217 in Howland. The accident happened on Saturday at about 7:30 p.m.

Troopers say the driver, 30-year-old Leslie Greenlaw of Linneus, left the roadway and down the embankment hitting a culvert and rolled over.

MacArthur was not wearing a seatbelt was ejected from the car. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Greenlaw was treated for non-life threatening injuries at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center.

State Police Reconstruction team was called to the scene to assist and troopers continue to investigate the cause of the crash.

 

US states file lawsuit accusing drugs firms of inflating costs

An assortment of generic pillsA lawsuit alleges that more than 100 generic drugs were included in a price-fixing scheme

More than 40 US states have filed a lawsuit accusing pharmaceutical firms of conspiring to artificially inflate the cost of common medicinal drugs.

The lawsuit alleges that as many as 20 companies have been involved in fixing prices for over 100 drugs, including treatments for diabetes and cancer.

One of the firms accused is Teva Pharmaceuticals, the world’s largest producer of generic medicine.

Teva, which has denied any wrongdoing, says it will defend its actions.

The legal action, which follows a five-year investigation, accuses drugs companies of involvement in a scheme to boost prices – in some cases by more than 1,000% – and was filed on Friday by Connecticut Attorney General William Tong.

“We have hard evidence that shows the generic drug industry perpetrated a multi-billion dollar fraud on the American people,” Mr Tong said.

“We have emails, text messages, telephone records and former company insiders that we believe will prove a multi-year conspiracy to fix prices and divide market share for huge numbers of generic drugs.”

A representative of Teva in the US said that the Israeli company “has not engaged in any conduct that would lead to civil or criminal liability”, Reuters news agency reports.

The other 19 firms implicated in the lawsuit have yet to comment on the allegations.

Fifteen individuals were also named as defendants accused of overseeing the price-fixing scheme on a day-to-day basis.

According to the lawsuit, the drugs companies allegedly conspired to manipulate prices on dozens of medicines between July 2013 and January 2015.

It accuses Teva and others of “embarking on one of the most egregious and damaging price-fixing conspiracies in the history of the United States”.

Mr Tong said the investigation had exposed why the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs was so high in the US.

America’s healthcare system has been at the forefront of US politics for years.

President Donald Trump has frequently promised to dismantle the Affordable Care Act (ACA), better known as Obamacare, which was designed to make medical cover affordable for the many Americans who had been priced out of the market.

States have argued that eliminating Obamacare would harm millions of Americans who would struggle to meet the costs of medical care.

BBC: Cuban combat pilot released after 39 year US marijuana jail term

  • Bascaro
Bascaro was a fighter pilot for the government of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba

When the gates of the Miami Federal Correctional Institution closed behind him, ending his 39-year incarceration, Cuban exile and former anti-communist pilot Antonio Bascaro emerged holding an ominous record.

Bascaro, 84, has served the longest known US jail sentence for a non-violent marijuana conviction.

The city he finds is far from resembling the place he left back in the late 1970s when he was convicted of participating in a criminal organisation that smuggled more than 270,000 kg (600,000lbs) of Colombian marijuana into the United States.

Skyscrapers now soar above the south Florida horizon and many of the old tile houses of Little Havana, the Cuban exile neighbourhood where he spent most of his days before prison, no longer exist or have been converted into bars and restaurants.

There are even some legal medical marijuana dispensaries around the city which, for the octogenarian ex-cannabis smuggler, could not be more ironic.

Bascaro’s release after almost four decades also brings uncertainty about his future.

Bascaro ate a full Cuban breakfast with his family after his release from jailBascaro ate a full Cuban breakfast with his family after his release from jail
Wearing a Bay of Pigs veteran hat, he drinks a Cuban coffee for the first time in 39 yearsWearing a Bay of Pigs veteran hat, he drinks a Cuban coffee for the first time in 39 years

As a non-US citizen convicted of a major felony, he will find out next month if he will be deported.

His daughter Myra Bascaro is grateful he is free to go. “But where to?”, she wondered in an interview with BBC Mundo.

“To Cuba where he could get arrested again for having fought against Fidel Castro? To Guatemala where he met my mother but where he has nothing and nobody… the country that deported him to the United States almost 40 years ago?”

But in the meantime, he is back to enjoying Cuban coffee with his children. His first meal outside the walls of a federal penitentiary in 39 years was four eggs, double ham, bacon and a guava and cheese pastry. As he tucked in, he marvelled at the silverware, telling his family that he had not been allowed to use metal cutlery in decades.

Sitting alongside his son and grandson, who also became pilots, he thanked them and his supporters outside the jail, but added “it took too long”.

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‘My big mistake’

Back in 1977, Florida was the gateway for drugs into the United States. Miami was the capital of drug trafficking and Little Havana was the covert entrance into the booming underworld.

The state, the city and the Little Havana neighbourhood grew at the vertiginous pace of drug sales while the streets became the battleground where Cuban and Colombian mafias used bullets to settle business disputes.

By the late 70s, the cartels’ “Cocaine Cowboys” had already turned the market around, substituting white powder for weed.

But in Little Havana, marijuana was still the main cash crop.

One day in 1977, Bascaro’s friend Guillermo Tabraue, who owned local a jewellery shop, invited him around for a meal.

Little HavananLittle Havana is one of the most iconic Cuban neighbourhoods in Miami

“That’s where I met the boss and singular owner of the conspiracy,” Bascaro said in emails exchanged with the BBC before his release.

“After a tasty meal and some drinks, he challenged me to join him,” in receiving a shipment of drugs, he said.

“I accepted the challenge and I enjoyed the feeling of excitement,” said the former Cuban prisoner of war. “I had not felt it in years, so I ended up getting involved.”

But 39 years later, the CIA-trained veteran says he now feels “many regrets about what I did”.

He now hopes to spend his remaining years living “a peaceful life” near his family, and to focus on trying to “improve my deteriorated physical and mental health, try to re-organise my life, and be productive for my family and for society”.

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‘The fighter pilot who fought Castro’

Myra Bascaro was 12-years-old when her father was convicted in the US. She did not see him again until she was 24 during a visit to a prison in Pennsylvania.

“He had always been a hero for me: the fighter pilot who fought against Fidel Castro’s regime,” she says, describing him as an admirable man of conviction.

Myra and her fatherMyra Bascaro was 12-years-old when her father was sentenced in the United States

Myra said that she has always believed that her father got into drugs because he was divorced from her mother and felt pressure to earn money to help her and her brothers.

She tells BBC Mundo that for decades she fought to keep her father’s past from affecting her life.

But when he turned 80, she decided to quit her job and start a social media campaign to try to convince the US government to reduce his prison sentence.

“I did everything I could, but I didn’t achieve anything. Even though several [White House] administrations of the United States granted clemencies to hundreds of prisoners, it was always denied to my father,” she said.

Over the 39-year stretch that he spent in prison, several laws were passed that reduced penalties for people convicted of drug crimes. But none benefited Bascaro.

“Since his conviction in 1980, many new laws have benefited prisoners [who were] arrested afterward. But because he had been in jail for so long, those reductions were for people sentenced after him,” she said.

“It seems like they thought that anyone with a conviction so far back would be already dead.”

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‘I never betrayed my military honour’

Bascaro left medical school to join the Cuban Naval Academy in 1952, and later studied aviation in Pensacola, Florida, in 1954.

By 1956 he returned to Cuba and joined the country’s air force.

“I served as a Naval air pilot at the Mariel Air Base until Fidel Castro landed in Cuba. I volunteered to oversee the air patrols to prevent invasions or the entry of weapons into the area occupied by the guerrilla groups,” he recalls.

“I was the youngest naval lieutenant that ever served in Cuba’s navy. I was promoted to that post before turning 24-years-old, in 1958.”

BascaroBascaro fought as a pilot against Fidel Castro’s guerrilla in the Sierra Maestra

“That year, I had to carry out an emergency landing with my plane, the Marine 50,” he said describing the plane which is now kept in the Museum of the Cuban Revolution in Havana.

“I landed in the mountains, in the area that was controlled by Raul Castro.”

After the guerillas captured him, he was taken to hospital, where the brother of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro came to see him.

“He tried to convince me to join his group and I rejected the offer because I would never betray my principles or my military honour,” he says.

BascaroAntonio, fourth to the right, as an aviation student

After refusing, he was jailed from 11 November of 1958 until 2 January of 1959 (one day after the Cuban Revolution ousted the Batista regime).

Later, he was sent by boat to Havana’s Castillo del Morro prison where he remained until mid-March before being released and discharged by the navy a few days later.

La Cabaña fortressLa Cabaña Fortress was used as a prison by the government of Fidel Castro after the beginning of the revolution

“At the Morro prison I used to hear bursts of gunfire every night,” he says, adding that he was twice subjected to mock executions.

“I still don’t know why they didn’t kill me. Looking back, I have more lives than a cat.”

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A piece of history

The old cedars of Havana provide shade most of the year to a small square where an eternal flame burns.

Guarded day and night by soldiers, the fire flickers over the “relics” of the revolution.

The Vought Kingfisher, which Bascaro said he was flying, on display in the Cuban Museum of the Revolution
The Vought Kingfisher, which Bascaro says he was flying, on display in the Cuban Museum of the Revolution

In the yard of the Cuban Museum of the Revolution sits a red delivery truck that a group of young people used in an attack on the presidential palace in March 1957, with the intention of killing then Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, an attempt that failed.

There’s also the Granma, the yacht that Fidel Castro and his followers sailed to Cuba to start their insurrection.

And in front of that, in an overlooked corner, there’s a plane – a Vought Kingfisher that became the first aircraft used by the rebels.

the plaque
In the Museum of the Revolution, a plaque tells the story of the plane that Bascaro says he was piloting

The sign next to it describes how it was taken after being forced to land in the area of the II Oriental Front led by Raul Castro.

It was one of those rare instances in which a Latin American guerrilla had access to a plane, and was, in fact, the first aircraft in the hands of La Revolución.

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Bay of Pigs failure

In his emails with the BBC, he described being released from revolutionary prison by mistake, which caused him to go into hiding in Cuba for two months at his godmother’s house.

He then requested asylum from Uruguay before fleeing Cuba for Guatemala to join a CIA mission training Cuban exiles to invade their home country through the Bay of Pigs.

The air squadron that he commanded never took off to assist the CIA-trained agents, as the mission fell apart soon after the invasion began.

Bay of Pigs soldiersThe invasion of the Bay of Pigs was organised by the CIA

“On that day, the brigade had to disperse into the swamps and most of the officers left behind were captured,” says Bascaro.

“At that moment, I was ready to fly anything that had a motor or wings to help out my comrades abandoned in that secluded beach without escape routes,” he said.

“That was something that disturbed me and many of my comrades for a long time. I know that many of them decided to never fly again and ended up working in other activities.

“Not because of a lack of valour, but because of the deception caused by the fact that the brigade had been abandoned and sent to a certain death.”

Short presentational grey line

Refusing a deal

Fast forward to 1987 and the criminal organisation to which Bascaro belonged – under the leadership of a Cuban man 20 years younger than him – has a wide network of Colombian suppliers, lawyers, ships, planes and corrupt police officers in Florida.

But a combination of bad weather – and perhaps bad luck – brought an end to their endeavour when a shrimp boat they used to move drugs through the Gulf of Mexico got stranded and was detected by the FBI.

On 21 February, 1980, Bascaro was arrested in Guatemala. He was sent to Miami and handed over to the American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

After a trial in Georgia, he was found guilty of “conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana”.

Bascaro rejected offers from US authorities to reduce his sentence in exchange for his co-operation on other investigations, leading to his sentence of 60 years in prison.

“I refused to co-operate because my moral values and ethics, as well as my military training, kept me from using someone else or from testifying against another person to solve my problems.

“No one forced me to join the conspiracy. That is why I did not co-operate or try to use anyone else to save my neck.”

BascaroBascaro is currently 84-years-old

As every member of the criminal organisation was eventually tried, sentenced and released, Bascaro became the last one of the group without his freedom.

He sometimes has wondered if there is some hidden reason for why every one of his requests for early release had gone ignored, before in 2019 his sentence was finally reduced by 20 years due to good behaviour.

Short presentational grey line

‘Judicial quirk’

Amy Povah, president of Can-Do Foundation, a US group working to reduce sentences for people arrested for drug-related crimes believes that the sentence against Bascaro will go down in history.

“Antonio was accused of conspiracy, which is one of the most abusive in the arsenal of the Department of Justice (DOJ) because it charges someone for the actions of others unless they co-operate,” she told BBC Mundo.

She said that because Bascaro rejected collaboration with prosecutors, he was charged with all the crimes committed by his accomplices.

A quirk of the justice system, Ms Povah says, is that those who reach agreements with US prosecutors receive lower sentences for helping them convict anyone who declines to co-operate.

In order to get the benefit of a plea bargain, one does not just confess, she said.

“Co-operation means you must give substantial assistance which, in legal terms, is defined as assistance ‘directed to the investigation and prosecution of criminal activities by persons other than the defendant.'”

According to Ms Povah, most defendants take the agreement, but those that refuse often end up with a “draconian conviction”.

25 from Maine, N.Y. charged in sweeping Downeast drug bust

The investigation involved more than 30 Maine drug agents, troopers, deputies, the FBI, Border Patrol, Secret Service, U.S. marshals and more.download (1).png

BANGOR, Maine — Fifteen people from Maine and 10 from New York were either arrested or charged this week as part of a major drug trafficking bust, involving a joint effort between 13 county, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

Maine U.S. Attorney Halsey B. Frank and the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency announced the arrests and charges Friday, which arose from an investigation into drugs being trafficked from New York City to Washington County and Hancock County in Maine.

Seven search warrants were executed Thursday, the U.S. attorney’s office said, resulting in the seizure of several firearms, including a sawed-off shotgun and large amounts of crack and fentanyl.

Arrested and charged Thursday by criminal complaint in federal court were the following 14 people with the charge or charges proceeding:

From Maine…

  • Vestin Drisko, 40, of Beals Island; and Renita Honea, 57, of Jonesport, with distributing crack and heroin, and maintaining a drug-involved premises
  • Chandra Hanscom, 44, of Cutler, with distributing heroin
  • Cody Look, 30, of Cutler, with possession with intent to distribute crack
  • Barry McCarthy, 43, of Columbia; and Ralph Sawtelle, 27, of Lubec, with maintaining a drug-involved premises
  • Robert McKenna, 48, of Indian Township, with distributing crack
  • William Smeal, 32, of Hancock, with possession with intent to distribute fentanyl

From New York…

  • Jordy Collado, 18, of New York, New York, with possession with intent to distribute crack
  • Miquel Angel Franco, 22, and Milo Danell Germany, 21, both of Bronx, New York, with possession with intent to distribute cocaine
  • Cinque Grasette, 42, of New York, New York, with distributing crack and heroin
  • Mujahedeen Hasan, 28, of Bronx, New York, with distributing crack
  • Julian Lloyd, 24, of Bronx, New York, with possession with intent to distribute fentanyl

Kevin Leroy Barner, 53, of Bronx, New York, was arrested Thursday after having been charged by indictment March 28 with possession with intent to distribute 28 grams or more of crack.

RELATED: 2 New Yorkers charged with arson, selling heroin in Richmond

Additionally, charged Friday by criminal complaint in federal court were the following three people with the charge or charges proceeding:

  • Christopher Cruz, 30, and Christopher Martinez, 29, both of Bronx, New York, with possession with intent to distribute crack
  • Timothy Cates, 40, of Cutler, Maine, with maintaining a drug-involved premises

If convicted, Barner faces between five and 40 years in prison and up to a $5,000,000 fine.

Drisko, Honea, Hanscom, Look, McKenna, Smeal, Collado, Franco, Germany, Grasette, Hasan, Lloyd, Cruz and Martinez face up to 20 years in prison and a $1,000,000 fine for the drug trafficking charges.

Drisko, Honea, McCarthy, Sawtelle and Cates face up to 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine for the maintaining a drug-involved premises charges.

Part of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) Program, the investigation included: the MDEA; Maine State Police; FBI; U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration; Washington County Sheriff’s Office, Hancock County Sheriff’s Office; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations; U.S. Border Patrol; U.S. Secret Service; U.S. Marshals Service; and Maine Marine Patrol.

The MDEA separately announced Friday that it had charged seven people — six from Maine and one from New York — with drug trafficking, as part of the aforementioned investigation involving more than 30 MDEA agents:

From Maine…

  • Jessica Dana, 36, of Indian Township; and Rachel Dwyer, 46, of Lubec, with unlawful trafficking crack
  • Amber Douglas, 24, of Lubec, with unlawful trafficking heroin
  • Wayne Dube, 43, of Jonesport; William Gatcomb, 49, of Sullivan; and John Moholland, 50, of Princeton, with aggravated trafficking crack

From New York…

  • Craig Price, 29, of New York, New York, with unlawful trafficking heroin/crack

Cates, who was also charged in federal court, was charged separately by Maine drug agents with unlawful possession of fentanyl.

Insys Therapeutics founder John Kapoor convicted in US opioid case

John Kapoor

The founder of Insys Therapeutics John Kapoor has become the first pharmaceutical boss to be convicted in a case linked to the US opioid crisis.

A Boston jury found Kapoor and four colleagues conspired to bribe doctors to prescribe addictive painkillers, often to patients who didn’t need them.

The former billionaire was found guilty of racketeering conspiracy for his role in a scheme which also misled insurers.

Tens of thousands of deaths have been caused by opioid overdoses in the US.

Indian-born Kapoor founded drugmaker Insys Therapeutics in 1990 and built it into a multi-billion dollar company.

The jury found Kapoor had also misled medical insurance companies about patients’ need for the painkillers in order to boost sales of the firm’s fentanyl spray, Subsys.

The court heard that Kapoor – who was arrested in 2017 on the same day President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a “national emergency” – ran a scheme that paid bribes to doctors to speak at fake marketing events to promote Subsys.

During the 10-week trial, jurors were also shown a rap video made by Insys for its employees on ways to boost sales of Subsys.

Kapoor and his co-defendants – Michael Gurry, Richard Simon, Sunrise Lee and Joseph Rowan – face up to 20 years in prison.

A statement from Kapoor’s lawyer said he was “disappointed” with the verdict. The men had denied the charges and have indicated that they plan to appeal.

Forbes listed Kapoor’s net worth as $1.8bn (£1.4bn) in 2018, before dropping off the publication’s billionaire rankings this year.

His conviction marks a victory for US government efforts to target companies seen to have accelerated the opioid crisis.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has said that opioids – a class of drug which includes everything from heroin to legal painkillers – were involved in almost 48,000 deaths in 2017.

The epidemic started with legally prescribed painkillers, including Percocet and OxyContin. It intensified as these were diverted to the black market.

There has also been a sharp rise in the use of illegal opioids including heroin, while many street drugs are laced with powerful opioids such as Fentanyl, increasing the risk of an overdose.