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.

Portland councilors must decide how many homeless people new out-of-sight shelter can hold

The City Council has to set the capacity so the shelter can be designed, but advocates for the homeless fear the city could abandon its 30-year commitment to taking in anyone in need of shelter.

Portland city councilors are facing a decision on the capacity of a new homeless shelter planned for the Riverton neighborhood, a key but sensitive step that is raising questions about the city’s decades-old pledge to shelter anyone in need.

A City Council committee is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a recommended capacity, which the full city council will ultimately determine and city staff will use as they design and prepare to operate the new shelter.

A draft resolution, discussed by the Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee on Oct. 29, calls for “adequate capacity to handle occasional overflow.” It does not mention any limits on the number of people coming from outside Portland to seek a bed – a controversial restriction that has been discussed previously and could be raised again as the discussion moves to the full council.

In practical terms, the council needs to set a capacity so a new shelter can be designed. However, any attempt to do so could be seen as walking back the city’s 30-year commitment to shelter anyone in need. That commitment has led communities surrounding Portland and beyond to rely on the city’s shelter as safety net.

City officials have talked for many months about building a 150-bed shelter, but that number has not been formally endorsed by the council. At a previous meeting, one councilor suggested setting the capacity higher than the 150 beds, given that the city’s existing adult shelter and overflow spaces have routinely exceeded 200 people a night in recent years.

Another councilor suggested punting the sensitive capacity discussion to the full council.

“We’re going to have to build a shelter with a finite amount of beds,” City Councilor and committee member Brian Batson said at a recent meeting. “Of course, there will be overflow.”

Committee members Batson and Councilor Pious Ali did not respond requests for interviews on Monday. Councilor Belinda Ray, who chairs the committee, said she was not available.

City officials are working on plans to build a new shelter to replace its existing shelter on Oxford Street in Bayside, which they say is outdated and unsafe for both staff and guests.

The existing shelter is a former three-story apartment and attached auto garage, where people sleep on floor mats. It routinely exceeds its 154-person capacity, forcing the city to find overflow space. An additional 75 floor mats are set up at Preble Street and additional space in the city’s general assistance office are also used when needed.

The council voted in June to build a new homeless shelter on Riverside Street, a move that continues to be opposed by area residents and homeless advocates who fear that the new location is too far from services and jobs on the peninsula. Men and women staying at the current shelter also have expressed concerns about the new location and its distance from downtown, even predicting that people will find places to sleep outside rather than travel back and forth to Riverside.

City staff have said they plan to offer a shuttle service to supplement an existing bus route to help clients make it to their appointments.

Unlike the current facility, the new shelter is expected to include a host of onsite services, including a soup kitchen, medical clinic, community police station and areas for counseling. It also will have actual beds, rather than floor mats.

The committee took up a potential capacity limit at its last meeting, but was unable to reach an agreement.

Ali wanted more information about what the city will do when people arrive at the shelter after the cap has been reached before he decides how to vote. He suggested that the committee let the council as a whole set the capacity.

Up until now, city staff has been using informal advice given by the council last year to create a shelter with up to 150 beds, plus space for an additional 25 beds for overflow. But advocates have pointed out that demand for beds already routinely exceeds that amount.

There has been a reduction in the number of adults seeking shelter over the last two years. The average number of people seeking space at the Oxford Street Shelter so far in 2019 has been 208, compared to 216 in 2017. But the demand varies widely, from a high of 271 on two nights in January and February to a low of only 135 beds one night in August.

The slight drop in average nightly use has come as shelter staff have issued more criminal trespass orders to prevent individuals who break rules from returning. The orders, which can prevent someone from using the shelter for up to a year, increased by 50 percent last year, from 84 in 2018 to 126 through early October. However, trespass orders dropped by nearly 28 percent at other community shelters, from 86 to 62.

A breakdown of trespass orders provided to council showed that 43 were issued after an assault on a guest, 19 after an assault on a staff member, 16 issued after a threat to staff and 10 because of hate speech.

City Manager Jon Jennings said Oct. 22 that move is part of its efforts to protect staff from increasingly violent behavior fueled by an increase in methamphetamine use. “It certainly is a much more threatening behavior,” Jennings said.

Batson, a nurse at Maine Medical Center, said he’s seen a rise in aggressive behavior because of meth as well, calling it “a very real thing.”

Officials at the nonprofit social service provider Preble Street did not respond to requests for an interview on Monday about the capacity debate. Donna Yellen, the nonprofit’s deputy director, said at an Oct. 8 committee meeting that there were still periods over the last year when more than 250 people were in the city’s emergency shelter.

Yellen said that one of the reasons Maine regularly has lower rates of unsheltered homeless people when compared to other states is largely because Portland’s commitment to help anyone in need.

“Please, give considerable community process before changing this policy that will absolutely change the face of our city and it will become one that none of us will be proud of,” she said.

Ray, the chair of the council committee, said at the Oct. 29 meeting that setting a capacity at the new shelter would also help the city solicit financial support from the state and from other communities in the region that rely on Portland’s shelter to help residents. She did not think that city staff would ever allow people in need to go without shelter.

“We are everybody’s overflow,” Ray said. “Setting a cap helps to give us leverage to get other people involved in a way we haven’t been able to in the past.”