Drug arrests in Maine dropped significantly last year, even as the state and nation continued to battle an epidemic of opioid abuse.

In its annual report on Maine crime, the state Department of Public Safety said 5,411 drug arrests were made in 2016, down 9 percent from 5,943 the year before. Drug arrests had increased for three straight years before 2016.

Last year’s decline raises questions because it occurred at the same time that drug-related deaths in the state soared. Also, the state’s drug enforcement agency has received funding for 10 additional agents in the past two years and Gov. Paul LePage has made cracking down on drug dealers a top priority of his administration. His controversial, racially charged remarks about the race of drug dealers came in the wake of a discussion about out-of-state dealers bringing heroin and opiates into Maine.

Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, said he can’t explain the drop in arrests, but he hopes it’s because of better policing.

The state Legislature, at LePage’s urging, provided McKinney with more agents in 2015 to look for and arrest drug dealers and manufacturers. McKinney said the MDEA’s focus in recent years has been on shutting down meth labs and trying to catch higher-level dealers who are moving larger amounts of drugs into Maine – like the four men arrested in Sanford in June with nearly 3 pounds of cocaine, heroin and fentanyl. He said that approach might be bearing fruit, increasing 2015 arrests to a level much higher than in other years.

“The goal is not to increase the total number of drug arrests, but to go at it at the level of the dealer,” McKinney said. The 2016 decrease in arrests doesn’t worry him, he said, because agents are still searching out drugs and dealers every day.

LEGAL MARIJUANA MAY BE FACTOR

However, a professor of criminology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York suggested there could be another reason for the drop in arrests: The state’s recent passage of a referendum to legalize marijuana.

Robert Moskos noted that Maine’s 12 percent drop in marijuana arrests – from 2,795 in 2015 to 2,457 last year – outpaced the overall decrease in drug arrests. He speculated that police in Maine may have made marijuana arrests less of a priority as the state moved toward legalizing recreational pot. Medical marijuana has been legal in Maine for years.

Moskos said the drop in marijuana arrests also might have led to a decline in the number of arrests for more dangerous drugs, including Oxycontin, heroin and fentanyl. Moskos, who was a beat police officer in Baltimore and wrote a book – “Cop in the Hood” – about his experiences before becoming a professor, said it’s not unusual for police to find those stronger, lethal drugs when they arrest someone for marijuana possession. That could account for the drop in both marijuana possession arrests and decreases in arrests for opioids and heroin, he said.

Despite the drop in opioid arrests, police and other officials in Maine say illegal drugs are still the top law enforcement problem in the state. The rate of crimes overall in Maine has declined nearly 40 percent in the past five years.

“Maine is still one of the safest places in the country to live,” said Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety. “But it doesn’t feel that way” because of drug use, sales and manufacturing in the state.

“We’re getting more calls, we’re working harder and we deal with drugs all the time,” he said.

CRIME OVERALL DOWN IN MAINE

LePage also referenced drug crimes in hailing the decrease in overall crime shown in statistics released Wednesday.

“Maine continues to be one of the safest states in the country. Unfortunately, the flow of deadly drugs from out of state is still driving crime in Maine,” he said in a written statement.

His office did not respond directly to questions about the drop in drug arrests in 2016, even with the additional law enforcement resources that LePage has long advocated.

Nationally, the number of arrests for the sale and manufacture of drugs declined from 194,426 in 2015 to 182,048 in 2016, according to figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Arrests for drug possession rose from 971,121 in 2015 to 1,004,762 last year, and the number of arrests for marijuana possession dipped slightly from 445,265 to 443,454 in 2016.

The state Department of Public Safety said crime rates in seven categories showed decreases last year, although the numbers on crimes in three categories – arson, rape and aggravated assault – increased. Overall, the number of crimes in Maine declined 8.7 percent last year and has dropped 38.6 percent since 2011, the department reported.

The overall crime rate for the state was 18 offenses per 1,000 people. By comparison, the crime rate nationally in 2015 was 29 per 1,000 people. The rate of violent crime in Maine was one offense per 1,000 people, compared with a national rate for violent crime of four per 1,000 people.

In Cumberland County, the crime rate was 19.33 per 1,000 last year, down from 20.31 in 2015. In York County, the crime rate was 18.12 per 1,000 people, down from 20.15 in 2015.

The number of murders in Cumberland County increased from three to six last year, but all other categories of crime were down except for aggravated assault and arson. In York County, murders also increased, from one to two. Rapes, aggravated assaults and arson also increased, while robberies, burglaries, larcenies and motor vehicle thefts declined.

The clearance rate for crimes was 35.6 percent in Cumberland County, up from 33.4 percent the year before. In York County, it was 28.9 percent in 2016, down from 30.4 percent the year before. Clearance rates are based on whether charges are lodged against a suspect who is then taken into custody. The national average clearance rate for 2015 was 22.7 percent.

The statewide homicide rate dropped in 2016 by 21 percent, from 23 homicides in 2015 to 18 last year. Burglaries and robberies also fell sharply – burglaries declined 14.6 percent, from 4,675 in 2015 to 3,991 last year, and robberies were down 14.5 percent, from 311 in 2015 to 266 in 2016. Larceny-thefts, simple assaults, domestic violence assaults and motor vehicle thefts also declined last year.

ARSON, RAPES, SOME ASSAULTS RISE

Arson saw the largest increase, jumping 129.7 percent, with 209 incidents last year, up from 91 reported in 2015. State officials said that increase is largely because of a new reporting system that has the state Fire Marshal’s Office reporting arson incidents, rather than individual police departments. McCausland said there were some inconsistencies in reporting of arson cases in the past by local police, and it’s expected that the numbers will be more accurate now because the Fire Marshal’s Office investigates all arson cases in the state.

Rapes increased by 2.7 percent, from 373 cases in 2015 to 383 last year, along with aggravated assaults, which increased from 916 to 1,002 incidents, up 9.4 percent. Aggravated assaults involve the use of a weapon in committing an assault. McCausland said he knew of no specific reason for the increase.

The department also said the decrease in crime was relatively uniform between rural areas and cities and towns. Crime in rural parts of Maine, which are typically patrolled by state police or county sheriff’s departments, dropped by 9.8 percent. In urban areas, which typically have their own municipal police departments, the decline was 8.3 percent.

Adult arrests were down 3.4 percent last year, from 41,649 in 2015 to 40,227 in 2016. Juvenile arrests also were down, from 3,547 in 2015 to 3,222 last year, or 9.2 percent.

The value of property stolen during 2016 was reported as $17.9 million, down from $20.3 million in 2015. Police recovered 28.5 percent of the stolen property last year, valued at $5.1 million. In 2015, police recovered $5.7 million in stolen property.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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