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.