The eyes of Washington County communities may end up being the saving grace in the face of recent news that the nature of drug addiction and trafficking is changing for the worse in Washington County. Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Division II Commander Peter Arno says, "Washington County is facing the same issues in change over normal drug trafficking with an increased presence of the number of out‑of‑state, inner‑city drug trafficking gangs."
Eastport Police Chief Rodney Merritt explains that in the past 90% of the drug trade was by local people who were dealing to feed their own addiction. The 10% of drug dealing with hard drugs like heroin and cocaine and involving drug traffickers who were in the business of selling drugs to make a profit was the exception. That mix is changing, and because of the county's rural nature, Arno explains, "It's in people's faces."
Merritt says, "Gangs are all about profit," and law enforcement by itself would never be able to stop gang activity. It's the community that holds the power. "Their help is key. It's all those eyes" that notice when suddenly someone's home or a neighborhood spot is being visited by an unusual number of cars or foot traffic.
At a May 8 Calais City Council budget workshop, an interagency investigation of violence in the region that may be related to gang drug trafficking was brought to the fore when the issue of budget cuts to the Calais Police Department was raised. Councillor Alan Dwelley and Mayor Marianne Moore referenced the drug activity and suggested that now was not the time to be cutting back on public safety. City Manager Diane Barnes asked two Calais police officers to discuss what they were able to about the activity. Calais Police Chief David Randall was not present. Sgt. John Preston and Officer Matt Vinson stood before the council and public and described drug trafficking activities, which they attributed to two well‑known gangs, the Crips and the Dominicans, which they said were doing extreme acts of violence for non‑payment, including "putting guns in people's mouths."
Arno explains that while there is no doubt that gang‑related drug trafficking is in the county, he could not elaborate on recent activity and its relation to specific gangs and cartels because the facts are not all in yet. "I'm not trying to hide the ball on what's specifically happening in Washington County," he says. Arno says that when public safety and drug enforcement officials hold off on reporting a story, and then comments are made in public that lead to premature media reports, sometimes it becomes more difficult to conduct investigations.
While the county is spread out and the population is small at about 30,000, Arno explains, "There's no denying that in Washington County there is a long‑standing drug addiction problem" that can create an opportunity for gangs in search of new markets. Prescription drugs of the opiate class have long been a problem in the county, with addiction either starting out as a prescription for an injury or illness or beginning when a young person starts out with alcohol and marijuana and then moves on to opiates. Merritt says, "Heroin and cocaine used to be the exceptions." However, Arno says a bag of heroin now costs one‑third to one‑half less than one 30 milligram tablet of Oxycodone. Merritt notes, "Traditionally our problems were more with prescription drugs, and who they were distributed by didn't tend to be dangerous individuals." And by dangerous, he explains, he means not only the danger of the drugs but how the dealers conduct their business.
"The concern is that the only way they [external drug traffickers] can do business is to get kids addicted," says Arno. The pattern that law enforcement has seen for years, says Merritt, is the gateway of alcohol and marijuana. "Somehow they get that 'God' syndrome that they won't get addicted, but once they're on that rollercoaster they can't get off," Merritt adds. He describes the downward spiral that addicts descend by stealing drugs, money and possessions from family, then extended family and then friends, neighbors and people they do not know. While Merritt hopes that the level of violence associated with gangs would act as an incentive not to get into drugs, he acknowledges that addicts "reach a point where they can't meet their addiction and they will do whatever they have to do." He adds, "There hasn't been anyone who hasn't been directly affected by drug addiction in the county." It may be a family member or a neighbor, but Merritt believes that everyone in the county knows an addict.
It's that knowledge, the personal understanding of neighbors and the regular patterns of neighborhood living that could prove the most helpful in keeping the new type of drug trafficking at bay. "People in the community know what normal is for their neighborhood. If something seems out of normal, let us know," says Merritt. Obviously any behavior way out of the normal is easier to report, he acknowledges, and community members are often hesitant to say something that might get a neighbor in trouble. "We have no problem with confidentiality," Merritt says. And if someone makes a call to dispatchers, all they have to say is that they have information they need to share with an officer and they do not want their name used over the radio. Flagging down a patrol vehicle is another option, Merritt says.
"Communities that say, 'Enough is enough!' have done wonders. We can use the same tactic to keep our beautiful city safe," Merritt says of Eastport. And the same applies to the county. "It's the people themselves who have control. Their help is key. We're not asking for extra money or equipment, just their help and their moral support."