The new money will add to efforts to tamp down the spread of small operations that are already on the rise and taking a heavy toll on lives.
David Coffren does not associate using methamphetamine with good times.
Instead, he recalls trying to make the drug in his house and watching while the poisonous concoction started spitting sparks that ignited wherever they hit.
Tabitha Osnoe, 30, of Danforth in Washington County, said she got hooked on methamphetamine “real quick.” She was sentenced to prison after a meth lab was found in her home.
He thinks of his terrified mother watching as firefighters searched for his body in the burned-out shell of his mobile home.
His voice thick with emotion, he describes going down on one knee to look his 5-year-old son in the eyes, telling him that he had to go away to get help so he could be a better dad and someday they could live together again.
“We all lost everything, but I’m the only one that made that decision,” Coffren said recently during an interview at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, where he is serving an eight-year sentence.
The fire destroyed Coffren’s home in Kingfield on Feb. 8, 2012. Since then, Maine has seen a growing number of people trying to make methamphetamine at home. After finding just four labs in 2012, the state’s Clandestine Drug Laboratory Enforcement Team – which includes drug agents and chemists with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services – responded to 16 labs in 2013 and 28 in 2014, along with seven “dump sites” where the toxic byproducts of the process were discarded.
STOP METH USE IN EARLY STAGES
Now the U.S. Department of Justice has awarded Maine a $900,000 grant to hire four new drug agents specifically to combat the rise in methamphetamine manufacturing and the small do-it-yourself operations.
The state has created an education program for local police and firefighters so they can recognize the signs of “one pot” meth labs: tubing, camp stove fuel and lots of packs of cold medicine.
Heroin and prescription drug abuse remain Maine’s most serious drug problems, said Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. The agency made 195 heroin arrests and 168 prescription drug arrests in the first 11 months of 2014. But McKinney said it is vital to invest now to keep meth use from spreading.
In many other states, police have called methamphetamine their worst drug problem. In those regions, users typically purchase high-grade crystal methamphetamine produced in sophisticated labs located primarily in Mexico.
Those are the labs that viewers of “Breaking Bad” would recognize, says Cmdr. Scott Pelletier of the MDEA’s southern division, referring to the popular television series about a New Mexico drug kingpin.
By contrast, most of the meth in Maine is produced by users combining cleaning chemicals, flammable liquid, cold medicine and battery components in a plastic soda bottle, in an operation called “shake and bake” or “one pot” methamphetamine labs.
The chemicals are dangerously unstable, and the slightest error in the mixing can lead to an intense fire.
FATAL FIRE IS ‘GOING TO HAPPEN’
In almost every case where Maine agents have responded to a meth manufacturing site, there are burn marks on the counter and other evidence of meth batches gone bad, Pelletier said.
“I don’t think anybody has ever made it the first time correctly without having a mishap of some sort,” he said. “I’m still waiting for the fatal fire. It’s going to happen, without a doubt.”
The process itself gives off toxic fumes, coating walls and furniture and leaving behind a toxic sludge. Responding authorities have to dress in protective suits with breathing apparatus when dismantling a lab, a process that can cost $10,000 in overtime and equipment.
But for all its hazards, meth is the only hard drug that can be manufactured relatively simply, with legally obtainable components, which makes its rise more concerning.
“You have to be a genius to make Ecstasy. You don’t have to be a genius to make meth,” said Dr. Karen Simone, head of the Northern New England Poison Control Center. That makes it particularly alluring in areas with high poverty and where access to other drugs is limited and sporadic. Most of Maine’s meth arrests and lab seizures have been in northern and rural areas, in towns like Dyer Brook and Merrill in Aroostook County and Mason Township in Oxford County.
The most difficult ingredient to get is available in stores: cold medicine. Maine limits the amount of pseudoephedrine a person can buy to up to 9 grams a month and maintains an electronic registry to enforce the limit.
ADDICTION COSTS WOMAN DEARLY
In Maine, the drug is rarely made to sell for money, but is instead made by users for themselves, friends and acquaintances who buy the cold medicine for the mix and are paid in meth, Pelletier said.
Tabbatha Osnoe, 30, of Danforth in Washington County, was attracted to smoking methamphetamine because she thought it wouldn’t be as bad as the opiate addiction she had overcome.
Osnoe and her boyfriend, Alan Richardson, had two sons, a 5-month-old and a 4-year-old, when the drug began to affect her life.
“It became a problem real quick. … I was watching my life go downhill but I couldn’t stop it,” she said. “In six months we had secluded ourselves from everybody.
“The drug is horrible. It makes you somebody that you’re not. I wasn’t an angry person and he wasn’t either, but we became angry people.”
On March 21, she was sleeping with her baby alongside her and woke to find the baby not breathing.
Richardson rushed the child to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Soon after, the mobile home where the family lived caught fire. The State Fire Marshal’s Office concluded the fire was deliberately set, but nobody has been charged.
After the fire, investigators found meth-making equipment in the mobile home. The next day, Osnoe and Richardson were charged with trafficking in methamphetamine.
She was sentenced to 2½ years, Richardson to five years. Their surviving son was placed in foster care.
Osnoe says her baby had traces of methamphetamine in his system, but was told it was not enough to kill him and that his death remains a mystery.
The Office of Chief Medical Examiner refused a request by the Portland Press Herald to release the baby’s autopsy report, saying the case remains under investigation by the Maine Attorney General’s Office.
DANGEROUS TO HEALTH, HOME
The drug is notoriously difficult to overcome. Methamphetamine delivers an intense and prolonged high. Users may not sleep or eat for days.
The drug works by stimulating the nerves to release a massive amount of dopamine, a natural stimulant. But as with all drugs, it eventually wears off, leaving the user irritable, paranoid, exhausted, hungry – and craving more.
“You’re basically putting your body in overdrive all the time,” said Simone, the poison center doctor. “If you’re very unlucky, the first time out or early on, you could have a heart attack even if you’re young or a stroke or a dangerous increase in temperature. We tend to see that in people using chronically.”
Users can develop sores as they pick at imaginary bugs, and tooth decay as they grind their teeth. They can become psychotic. Osnoe said she would glimpse figures at the corner of her vision, hallucinations called “shadow people.”
COOKING METH, THEN SPARKS, FIRE
Coffren, the correctional center inmate, had used marijuana and alcohol and many other drugs his entire adult life, but the intense, long-lasting energy burst of meth took hold the first time he used it. A friend learned about making the drug while in prison, so they tried to make it themselves.
“The third time we tried, something went wrong,” he said. “I was in the next room. I heard them say, ‘Sparks! Sparks!’ and it was just like a cannon going off in my house. I ran in and there was fire all over the walls and the sink and the floor.” Coffren smothered the flames with baking soda.
“I said, ‘Never again.’ ” But about 20 minutes later, they were ready for another attempt. This time sparks ignited a rug and some laundry.
Coffren ran into a back room, wrapped his son, then 4 years old, in a blanket, and fled in a car as fire gutted his house.
“I felt like the lowest on the Earth driving away,” he said. “My son was totally innocent and everything he had was going up in flames because I was selfish and said, ‘I don’t care.’ ”