February 23

Heroin use climbs in Maine as cheaper alternative to prescription drugs

Today’s addicts are a consequence of years of access to prescription painkillers, an expert explains.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

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Cmdr. Scott Pelletier, head of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency in southern Maine, points out heroin packets that were seized in the state.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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HOW IT GETS HERE

The route heroin takes to get to Maine explains some of the variation in purity and why it’s so readily available.

Most of the heroin in Maine originates in South America, primarily Colombia, the largest producer in that region, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. In 2006, Colombia grew enough opium poppies to produce 4.6 tons of heroin, the latest numbers available from the DEA.

While Middle Eastern and Asian countries like Afghanistan and Myanmar are also major producers of opium, most of their product goes to the European market. Heroin from Mexico targets the western U.S.

Kilos of heroin bound for the East Coast are smuggled through Mexico or the Caribbean to New York City, known as the capital of “Smack,” one of the street names for heroin.

There, the heroin is cut with another substance, like baking soda, to increase the volume. It’s then sometimes ground into single doses of 0.1 gram, or 1 gram or 10-gram “fingers.”

Earlier this month, just before actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an apparent heroin overdose in Manhattan, drug agents broke up a mill operation in the Bronx, seizing 33 pounds of the drug worth $8 million, as well as 18 coffee grinders used to process it and hundreds of thousands of individual glassine bags stamped with the logos “NFL,” “government shutdown,” “iPhone,” and “Olympics 2012,” all names for different batches of heroin, according to the DEA. The names are used by dealers to promote their brand and to suggest consistency in a product that is constantly adulterated: weakened to increase the volume, but strengthened with other drugs to give it potency.

The farther from New York the heroin travels, the more expensive and less pure it is, and the greater the profit.

That creates a financial incentive for dealers from New York, who often deal in OxyContin and cocaine, as well as heroin, to set up shop in Maine, where a $5 bag of heroin can still be diluted and sold for $10 or $15.

“Driving from New York or mailing it up to Maine or New England, they’re seeing a bigger profit motive because they can make more selling it in Maine,” Pettigrew said. “The only thing that matters to people who deal drugs is profit. They don’t care who suffers, what communities are destroyed.”

The economics that make Maine an attractive market also make it worthwhile for users to drive south to obtain the drug for less.

A gram of heroin might be $45 in Lowell and Lawrence, Mass., a 90-minute drive from Maine, and a single dose costs $5. An addict can pay for the trip and his own heroin needs by making the drive. Mainers have also been known to use buses and trains to reach cheaper supplies in Boston and New York.

While heroin has been a problem for years, police used to seize heroin prepackaged in small glassine bags, with a dealer stamp like “the Grim Reaper,” said Portland Assistant Police Chief Vern Malloch.

“Now what we’re seeing is higher volumes. It is in ‘fingers’ ready to be cut and distributed. That’s a lot of heroin,” Malloch said.

OxyContin is still in high demand, typically selling for $1 or more per milligram, said Cmdr. Scott Pelletier, head of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency in southern Maine. An 80-mg pill would cost $90 to $100.

A similar amount of money spent on heroin will last longer, he said. And it’s easier to get.

“For a long time, everything was suboxone. It was easy to get,” Katz said, referring to an addiction treatment medicine that is sometimes abused. “Heroin has moved in and taken its place. Heroin has really flooded the market.”

Staff Video Reporter Susan Kimball contributed to this report.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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