Maine grapples with sharp rise in dangerous and costly meth lab busts

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AUGUSTA (AP) — Methamphetamine labs have proliferated at a startling rate across Maine, and drug agents say that the growth in the costly and dangerous raids has stretched their resources.

Maine officials busted 28 meth labs this year, up 12 from last year and more than six times as many as three years ago, said Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. That doesn’t include several responses officials had to make to “dump sites” — or places where people dispose of ingredients and materials used to make the drug.

“It’s a concerning trend,” McKinney said.

Responding to the operations can be costly and dangerous, with a high risk of fire and explosion, and is taking a toll on drug agents’ resources, said MDEA Commander Peter Arno, who oversees northern Maine. Officials say dismantling a lab can cost the agency more than $10,000 and doesn’t include the cost borne by local police and fire departments that also respond to the scene.

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“It has been a huge distraction,” Arno said. The labs, which are generally created by people who are making meth for themselves instead of elaborate drug trafficking organizations, “distract from the normal business that we need to be doing in the offices,” he said.

It’s difficult to pinpoint why meth lab seizures in Maine are on the rise, officials say. But it’s likely in part because local law enforcement agencies, which are often the first to come across the labs, say they are getting better trained in how to spot them.

Despite the rise that Maine has seen, the state has been relatively fortunate compared to Midwestern states that have been ravaged by the drug, said Geoff Miller, associate director of prevention and intervention studies with the Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services.

Admissions to treatment for meth in the state have grown slightly over the last couple of years — from 34 in 2008 to 48 this year — but remain below where they were in 2006, according to data provided by the Miller’s office.

Meth seems to have found its strongest foothold in Aroostook County, where nearly half the meth labs or dump sites have been discovered this year, McKinney said. With its close proximity to Canada, northern Maine has long had access to meth in tablet form that has been smuggled over the border, giving rise to the region’s addiction problem, he said.

“Once a drug problem gets rooted in a community, it’s kind of like a cancer and doesn’t go away on its own,” Arno said.

Officials hope a $900,000 federal grant that Maine was recently awarded will help the state stem the tide. The grant, announced in October, will provide funding for two years for the state to hire four new drug agents and buy specialized equipment for officials who respond to meth labs.

“We want to get ahead of this and immobilize it before it gets out of control,” McKinney said. “We don’t want to see the numbers that the Midwest has seen.”

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