Maine's supply chain: 'People are profiting off the misery and death that's going on around us'

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An abundant supply of heroin, fentanyl and prescription pills is flowing from Mexico into Maine through an interconnected network, killing hundreds of Mainers a year and decimating communities along the way, authorities said.

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In 2016, 376 people died from drug overdoses, compared to 272 in 2015, according to data from the Maine Attorney General’s Office. The influx of fentanyl, a powerful painkiller that can be deadly in small quantities, is contributing to the increase.

While out-of-state dealers are headed to Maine to sell, more and more Mainers are driving to Massachusetts to buy heroin on their own.

“That’s really where death is being created” – Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jon DeLena

Drug agents call them source cities: Lawrence, Lowell, Haverhill and Methuen – all conveniently located on the highway not far from the New Hampshire border. The cities line up on Interstate 495 like dots on a map, just under four hours from New York and about 90 minutes from Portland.

WMTW

Dealers target source cities in Massachusetts because of their convenience to the highway network, Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jon DeLena of the Drug Enforcement Administration said.

Dealers are finding a market in New England. What can be sold for $5 in New York City can go for $40 in Downeast Maine, in communities like Bar Harbor and Machias.

“We’d be doing drugs on the way there and on the way back,” said one Mainer in her 20s, who asked that we call her Lucy. “I would do whatever it took to get drugs.”

Some Mainers battling substance misuse and dealers looking to get in on the market are driving to northern Massachusetts on their own, where the price of heroin and opioids is cheaper.

“When everyone was off the road except us, that’s when I was more afraid” -‘Lucy’

Lucy would drive another woman to Massachusetts for heroin. The woman, who was Lucy’s dealer, would buy about 20 grams of heroin to sell. The dealer would give Lucy about a gram of heroin for a reward. She did not sell it.

“We would park on the side of the street and just wait for him to get in the car, give us the stuff, and then we would take off,” Lucy said.

Most of the heroin coming to Maine is directly from the source cities in northern Massachusetts, Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jon DeLena of the Drug Enforcement Administration said.

Federal drug agents have busted mixing operations in Lawrence where fentanyl, 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin, is being blended with a cutting agent, like baby powder or lidocaine.

“We’ve been in some homes that have 20 blenders going at the same time,” DeLena said. “That’s really where death is being created.”

WMTW-TV

WMTW

Dealers are finding a market in New England. What can be sold for $5 in New York City can go for $40 in Downeast Maine, in communities like Bar Harbor and Machias.

Matt Ganem, of Somerville, Massachusetts, knows the streets of Lawrence well. He came to the city to buy drugs. He is now more than a decade sober and speaks to students and groups about his recovery. He also runs the Banyan Treatment Center in nearby Wilmington.

“People find opportunities out here,” Ganem said. “And if you get high and you start doing drugs, everybody knows you can get high in Lawrence.”

Ganem started using drugs as a teenager. He remembers being handed a cigarette at 12.

“When I first tried getting clean, jail was the option (that) people didn’t talk about,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m either going to get high and commit crimes and live that life or I’m going to end up sitting in jail my entire life.’”

Ganem’s addiction began with alcohol, then progressed to Ecstasy and eventually to prescription opioids at 16.

“When you give a 16-year-old athlete a pill that’s made for people on their deathbed, it was a euphoric feeling,” he said, discussing how he took 80 milligrams of oxycodone.

“I didn’t think when I was doing (oxycodone) 80s that I was going to break my mother and father’s heart, I was going to be homeless and an IV heroin user,” Ganem said.

“Every time I pulled a score, I got any amount of heroin, I did it all that night hoping I didn’t wake up because I wanted to pass peacefully in my sleep. I didn’t have a friend I could talk to. I wore the same clothes for weeks. I didn’t brush my teeth. I was the kid that was walking down the street that you would cross because you didn’t want to go anywhere near me.”

Ganem said he was a different person 11 years ago, but he turned his life around.

“It’s better than winning the lottery,” he said.

That lottery win: two children, sober living and a talent for poetry. He also published a book called “The Shadow of an Addict.”

“The more we talk about it, the better chance we have for that kid who is struggling right now who doesn’t think there is a way out,” he said.

“People are profiting off the misery and death that’s going on around us” – DeLena

Dealers are making money off that doubt.

“Up to now, the New Yorkers were bringing in mostly heroin, but we know that mostly what’s coming out of northern Massachusetts is fentanyl,” DeLena said. “They can sometimes quadruple their money.”

Heroin is coming to Maine from Mexico, where dealers are growing opium in poppy fields and mixing chemicals from China to make illicit fentanyl. It’s then smuggled across the border.

“Because heroin is such a compact drug, it is often smuggled in small amounts, concealed in private vehicles, on the body or in body cavities, in luggage, and in shoes,” the DEA’s “2016 Drug Assessment Threat Summary” states. “Larger loads are often commingled with other, bulkier, drugs such as methamphetamine, and concealed in a variety of ways.”

Heroin is being sold in several formats. Bundles of packets, each containing less than a gram, and fingers, about 10 grams packed into the end of a latex glove, are most common.

WMTW-TV

WMTW

Illicit fentanyl sits inside Maine’s drug lab where chemists test powder for certain compounds.

Dealers are finding a market in New England. What can be sold for $5 in New York City can go for $40 in Downeast Maine, in communities like Bar Harbor and Machias.

According to a federal report released in 2015, all six New England states reported heroin as their greatest drug threat.

The Maine Turnpike and Interstate 95 provide an easy route for dealers to get heroin farther north, and for Mainers to drive south to source cities for their own buys.

WMTW-TV

WMTW

Data from the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency from 2012 to 2016 shows an increase of heroin-related arrests along coastal Maine and the Maine Turnpike corridor.

“They knew there was a vulnerability here,” DeLena said. “They tried to create a market for a long time for heroin, because they knew it was a natural progression from opiates to heroin. People are profiting off the misery and death that’s going on around us.”

Impaired driving is a major concern for DeLena, who said more and more Mainers are driving to Massachusetts’ source cities to make a buy, using it in the car and then coming back to Maine.

The fear of getting caught or getting into an accident did not scare Lucy, but the weather did.

“When we were driving through blizzards and storms, when everyone was off the road except us, that’s when I was more afraid,” she said.

WMTW-TV

WMTW

Lucy’s dealer, would buy about 20 grams of heroin to sell. The dealer would give Lucy about a gram of heroin for a reward. She did not sell it and is now in long-term recovery.

Massachusetts police later arrested Lucy while she was in her car in a parking lot doing drugs. Officers suspected something was odd when they saw Lucy’s car, with Maine license plates, in the parking lot alone. She was charged with possession.

She tried three different rehabilitation programs before she achieved a drug-free life. She is nearly three years sober and wanted to tell her story to show that recovery is possible.

The Maine Drug Enforcement Agency was involved in 627 drug arrests in 2016, 281 of which involved heroin and 104 that involved opioids. Numbers were unavailable at the federal level, which handles many interstate cases.

The total seizure, which involved more than 300 individual arrests in Maine for heroin and opioids, equals about 57,000 doses, the agency estimated. Agents also seized about 3,000 dosage units of prescription pills and opioids.

An analysis of heroin arrests from 2012 to 2016 showed a large increase in arrests statewide, especially in southern Maine. Over the last few years, arrests have increased in northern Maine toward Interstate 95.

Maine drug agents also seized about 1½ pounds of illicit fentanyl in 2016.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage said last year that most of the drug dealers arrested in Maine come from Connecticut and New York. He later told the State House News Service that he believes the drugs also come from Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera criticized LePage for his comments.

“During a crisis like this, it is time for us to work together and not spend time posturing politically pointing fingers and blaming people,” Rivera told the State House News Service in August. “This is a national problem, not just a Maine problem or a Lawrence problem. It’s not a white, black or brown problem; it’s an American problem.”

Rivera’s office did not return a request for comment for this story.

Lawrence police and Massachusetts State Police also did not respond to requests for comment.

WEBVTT >> MOVE INTO TO A IN THE CAR ONTHE ROAD AND >> ON THE WAY BACK>> — ON THE.>> IT’S A GROWING TREND, MAINERSDRIVING TO NORTHERNMASSACHUSETTS FOR HEROIN,DRIVING BACK HIGH.THIS MAINER, IN HER 20’S, WHOASKED WE NOT SHOW HER FACE FORFEAR OF ARREST, DROVE FROM MAINETO MASS WITH THE DELAY OF ADIFFERENT A YEAR.>> RUPEE PARKED ON THE FED OFTHE STREET AND JUST MAKE AND HEWOULD GET IN THE CAR.THEN WE WOULD GET HIGH.>> MOST OF THE HEROIN COMINGINTO MAINE IS COMING FROM HERE.LAWRENCE, MASSACHUSETTS.>> PEOPLE FIND OPPORTUNITIES OUTHERE.AND IF YOU GET HIGH AND YOUSTART DOING DRUGS, EVERYBODYKNOWS YOU CAN GET HIGH INLAWRENCE.>> MATT GANEM USED TO BUY HERE,HE’S BEEN CLEAN FOR 11 YEARS.YOU CAN DRIVE AROUND AND YOU’LLFIND SOMETHING IN THIS CITY.’ SO IT’S THAT EASY?YEA.>> DRUG AGENTS HAVE BUSTEDMIXING OPERATIONS HERE, WHEREFENTANYL, 30 TO 50 TIMES MOREPOTENT THAN HEROIN, IS BLENDEDWITH A CUTTING AGENT.ONE KILO OF POWDER BECOMES ASMUCH AS EIGHT KILOS OF PRODUCTWE’VE BEEN IN SOME HOMES THATHAVE 20 BLENDERS GOING AT THESAME TIME.THAT’S REALLY WHERE DEATH ISBEING CREATED.>> JON DELENA OVERSEES THE DEAIN NORTHERN NEW ENGLAND.>> UP TO NOW, THE NEW YORKERSWERE BRINGING IN MOSTLY HEROIN,BUT WE KNOW THAT MOSTLY WHAT’SCOMING OUT OF NORTHERNMASSACHUSETTS IS FENTANYL.>> DRUG AGENTS CALL THEM SOURCECITIES, LAWRENCE, LOWELL,HAVERHILL AND METHUEN ALLCONVENIENTLY LOCATED ON THEHIGHWAY, BETWEEN NEW YORK CITY,AND A MARKET IN NORTHERN NEWENGLAND.ONCE IT ARRIVES IN MAINE THOSEDEALERS ARE MAKING BIG MONEY.>> THEY CAN SOMETIMES QUADRUPLETHEIR MONEY.>> WHAT GOES FOR $10 HERE ON THESTREETS OF LAWRENCE CAN BE WORTH$20 IN PORTLAND, AND 40 BUCKS INWASHINGTON COUNTY.AND TARGETING DOWNEAST MAINE ISNO COINCIDENCE.>> THEY KNEW THERE WAS AVULNERABILITY HERE.THEY TRIED TO CREATE A MARKETFOR A LONG TIME FOR HEROIN,BECAUSE THEY KNEW IT WAS ANATURAL PROGRESSION FROM OPIATESTO HEROIN.PEOPLE ARE PROFITING OFF THEMISERY AND DEATH THAT’S GOING ONAROUND U>> THEY’RE BUYING BOTH TO MAKE APROFIT FROM IT AND SOMETIMES TOSUPPORT A HABIT.>> OUR MAINER’S REWARD FOR HERDRIVING, AS MUCH AS A GRAM ADAY.SHE’S NOW CLEAN, BUT REMEMBERTHIS, THE THREAT OF GETTINGCAUGHT DIDN’T SCARE HER JUST THEWEATHER DID.>> WHEN WE WERE DRIVING THROUGHBLIZZARD AND STORMS, WHENEVERYONE WAS OFF THE ROAD EXCEPTUS, THAT’S WHEN I WAS MOREAFRAID.>> GOVERNOR PAUL LEPAGE HASCRITICIZED LEADERS INMASSACHUSETTS FOR MAINE’S DRUGEPIDEMIC.WE REACHED OUT TO LAWRENCEPOLICE, THE MAYOR OF LAWRENCEAND MASSACHUSETTS STATE POLICETO TAKE PART IN THIS STORY, THEYDID NOT RESPOND TO OUR REQUEST.

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