- Associated Press - Friday, November 27, 2015

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - An epidemic of heroin and opiate overdoses is grabbing most of the headlines in Maine, but methamphetamine hasn’t gone away as a problem for law enforcement, either.

Law enforcement officials have responded to a record number of suspected meth labs across the state. The number was 51 as of Friday, compared with 37 in all of last year.

Maine’s meth lab activity is five times higher than that of other New England states, but most of the meth labs are small operations serving a small number of users, and the number of people seeking treatment for meth is growing at a slow rate, said Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.

The problem pales in comparison to heroin abuse, but the state always responds forcefully because the chemicals used to make meth raise the possibility of fires and explosions.

“It is a high priority because of the danger to public safety and health,” McKinney said. “We’ve found them in apartment buildings and homes. The danger and risks associated with it mandates that we do aggressively pursue these.”

Gov. Paul LePage has been pressing for more drug agents. He had set a Dec. 10 deadline for the Legislature to convene for a special session to provide funding to hire 10 more, but the Republican governor appears to have backed off slightly. Instead, he told lawmakers he wants assurances that they’re willing to address the hiring of agents “out of the gate” when they return in January.

Democratic and Republican legislative leaders have expressed a willingness to fund additional drug agents as part of a multipronged approach that includes treatment and prevention options.

Every time there’s a meth lab bust, resources are taken away from other investigations because agents must travel to the site and don protective suits and breathing apparatus, said Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

But drug agents aren’t letting meth lab operators off the hook.

When a meth lab is identified, agents launch an investigation to identity everyone involved in the investigation, even those who bought ingredients like cold packs, pseudoephedrine and lithium batteries.

“Sometimes we’ll have multiple arrests associated with one lab incident, rather than just bring a case against the person doing the ‘cooking.’ We go after everyone involved in that conspiracy,” McCausland said.

In the big picture, abuse of heroin, Fentanyl and other opiates has overshadowed meth, and with good reason. The number of overdose deaths increased from seven in 2009 to 57 in 2014, and Maine is on track for a record number this year.

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