For drug traffickers, even those who operate at the highest level in sophisticated, gang-controlled markets like New York City, Maine is fertile ground.
The reason is simple economics.
In business – legitimate or otherwise – the laws of supply and demand hold.
A decade ago, Maine was dealing with abuse of prescription opiates like OxyContin, a rise that corresponded directly with a huge spike in their availability, both through legal prescriptions and diversion.
When medical officials recognized opiates as a problem, they made it more difficult to acquire those drugs and harder to abuse them by crushing and snorting or injecting them.
But the demand – the hunger – didn’t go away.
Heroin, which produces the same high as prescription opiates and is just as addictive, was there to fill the gap.
And supply has never been greater.
Most heroin that ends up in the U.S. is produced in Mexico or Colombia, where opium is abundant and the supply is controlled by powerful cartels. The biggest of those cartels, the Sinaloa, supplies heroin directly to New York, which then distributes it to other areas.
Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Director Roy McKinney said Maine, along with other northern New England states, is being targeted by urban dealers for obvious reasons: A dealer can sell a gram of heroin in Maine for as much as three times what it would bring in New York.
“There was a time in Maine where you would see heroin smuggled in that was packaged for sale,” McKinney said. “That day is no longer. Now we see bulk heroin, and it’s being milled and packaged here. There’s simply more money to be made than in the saturated Greater New York market, and the dealers know that.”
McKinney said that last year, 17 percent of all drug traffickers his agents arrested were not Maine residents.
“It used to be that Maine dealers would leave the state to get their supply and bring it back,” he said. “Now, these larger (drug) organizations are coming here or having people come here.”
A GAME OF NUMBERS
A massive drug sweep in January that resulted in the arrest of two dozen people in the Lewiston area provided a glimpse of that phenomenon.
The investigation established, for the first time, a concrete link between Maine and the gang-controlled drug operations in the New York City borough of Queens.
At least two of the people arrested in January after a months-long investigation have direct ties to the powerful Crips street gang in Far Rockaway, a rough neighborhood in Queens.
In that case, Jamel Hamilton, who goes by the nickname “Murder,” has been charged with conspiracy to distribute heroin. Hamilton, who was identified by police as a gang leader, was arrested nine years ago in a similar drug sweep in Far Rockaway.
Another man, Christian Dent, who was arrested in January in Maine, was part of the same previous drug sweep. He was identified as one of Hamilton’s top lieutenants.
Maine’s drug supply has long been linked to Massachusetts, but the direct New York connection is also cause for concern.
Nationally, the heroin supply is as large as it’s ever been.
From 2008 to 2013, the amount of heroin seized at the U.S.-Mexico border jumped from 560 kilograms to about 2,100 kilograms, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
But it’s a game of numbers. Even as more heroin is being seized, more is also getting through.
McKinney said the same holds true at the local level. He said his agents are doing what they can to attack the supply but they aren’t getting everything off the street.
“Drug cases are very personnel-intensive,” he said. “And it’s more sophisticated. The higher-level dealers are doing everything they can to insulate themselves from criminal conduct. We want to disrupt or dismantle these operations at all levels.”
SMALL TOWN, HUGE PROBLEM
The drug trade is filtering down to more rural areas as well.
Old Orchard Beach Police Chief Dana Kelley said heroin has become a huge problem in his community.
Kelley said Old Orchard Beach, a tourist destination, is attractive to out-of-state dealers because it has many motels that offers cheap rates in the off-season. He also thinks dealers believe smaller towns don’t have the resources to thoroughly investigate trafficking – and that is often true.
More and more, police departments in Maine are focusing on eliminating drug trafficking, and right now that means heroin. In February, Maine joined a task force of East Coast states to investigate heroin trafficking, including across state lines.
The task force members will share information, including the identities of traffickers, stash houses and phone numbers gathered from wiretaps, informants and cooperating witnesses.
Until now, the drug activity has mostly operated under the radar of law enforcement.
That could change as heroin-related overdose deaths continue to rise precipitously.
“I don’t know that we’re any further ahead than we used to be, but we’re out there fighting it,” Kelley said.