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The Boston Phoenix Northern Exposure

Methamphetamine is a drug epidemic in much of the United States, but it's nearly impossible to find in New England -- except in the dark, rural reaches of Maine

By Jason Gay

JULY 26, 1999:  On a chilly autumn night, Scott Hafford, a man with no criminal history, got his guns and went to rob somebody. It was a few minutes past 9 p.m. on November 13, 1997, when Hafford, a 31-year-old construction worker, drove to the Paradis Family Supermarket in Fort Kent, Maine, a small logging village on the US-Canadian border. He pulled on a ski mask, grabbed his .44 Magnum revolver, and stuck a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun in his belt. He forced his way into the supermarket, which had just closed, and demanded that employees open the safe. He threatened to kill anyone who didn't cooperate.

It soon became clear that the employees weren't capable of opening the market's safe. Flustered, Hafford yelled at the workers to lie down on the floor. He then took a young male employee by the shoulder and led him out the market's rear entrance, pausing briefly to have the employee run back and grab him two cases of Budweiser. Hafford must have thought he was home free, but when he got outside, he was confronted by an armed Fort Kent patrolman, who screamed at him to put down his weapon. After a brief, tense standoff, Hafford gave up, whereupon he was tackled by police.

Fort Kent police chief Kenneth Michaud, who arrived at the market moments later, says he found the handcuffed suspect in a nearly delirious state. Hafford, who was from the town of Bridgewater, 100 miles to the south, told police he was high on crank -- slang for methamphetamine, a powerful synthetic stimulant that causes intense feelings of euphoria, as well as paranoia, and is sometimes tied to violence. Hafford, it turned out, had been bingeing on crank for five straight days without sleep.

"He was crazier than a cut cat," Michaud recalls. "He was not himself at all."

Indeed, Scott Hafford -- a husband and a father of three -- was a hard-core meth addict. He also proved to be a sign of the times. Over the past few years, the deepest reaches of northern Maine have witnessed a startling, unprecedented burst of methamphetamine trafficking and use. Meth arrests and seizures, virtually unheard-of in the region a decade ago, have jumped dramatically. So have meth-related crimes. In May, drug agents working in Aroostook County (where Scott Hafford lived) seized seven pounds of methamphetamine, with an estimated street value of more than $320,000 -- a haul local authorities believe is the largest meth bust in New England history. Meth now easily eclipses cocaine and heroin as the county's top hard-drug priority.

"Methamphetamine is a serious drug issue for northern Maine, and potentially for all of Maine," says Jay McCloskey, the United States Attorney in Bangor. "It's one of the most disturbing criminal trends I've seen in my 20 years as a federal prosecutor."

Northern Maine's methamphetamine problem troubles authorities for a number of reasons. The first is simply that meth is there. The drug -- which is known alternately as speed, crank, chalk, go-fast, and, in its smokeable form, crystal meth, glass, and ice -- has long been abundant along the West Coast and in the Midwest, where law-enforcement officials describe a crisis comparable to the crack-cocaine chaos of the late 1980s to mid '90s. But it has not deeply penetrated most of New England. Last year, for example, the Massachusetts State Police seized less than one-fifth of a gram of meth. By comparison, in Aroostook County -- a region with a population smaller than that of Cambridge -- 3305 grams of meth had been seized this year as of May.

What's more, the problem is continuing to grow. Every time one meth ring is stopped, another pops up. Law-enforcement authorities in the region say that lack of resources and personnel leaves them ill equipped to handle the mounting crisis. "It presents huge problems for our agency," says Roy McKinney, the director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency (MDEA), the state's chief drug-fighting outfit. And meth's impact is not limited to the police blotter. The drug has torn apart families, friendships, even workplaces. Substance-abuse counselors in the Aroostook region report a rising number of meth-dependent clients -- men and women, blue- and white-collar workers, young adults and old people. The drug has also infiltrated Aroostook's adolescent population. "There are a select few [teens] who are using it," says Mark Nelson, a local counselor who works in several Aroostook-area high schools.

No one is certain how methamphetamine has gained a foothold here. Some people believe it's coming via air mail; others think it was brought by truckers, by loggers, or by smugglers traveling down from Canada. It's also quite possible that the drug is being manufactured locally; though a clandestine meth lab hasn't been found in Maine for years, it's hard to find a local person who doesn't think there's someone out there in the forest cooking the drug. And almost no one thinks the methamphetamine trade will stay limited to Aroostook. Officials believe it's only a matter of time before meth begins arriving in heavy volume in cities such as Augusta and Portland and, eventually, Boston. Potentially, it adds up to a major regional drug problem. Because, to paraphrase an old sporting cliché, you don't stop methamphetamine. You can only hope to contain it.

Aroostook County is the northernmost territory in Maine, almost two hours up from Bangor and spanning a long stretch of the US-Canadian border running east from Quebec to New Brunswick. At 6400 square miles, Aroostook makes up more than one-fifth of Maine and is bigger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. Almost all of it is rural. Potato farms, pastureland, and logging forests are punctuated by small townships huddled along US Route 1 -- Houlton, Bridgewater, Mars Hill, Presque Isle, Caribou, Madawaska, Fort Kent. Winters in Aroostook tend to be cold and long, but in summer, when the lake-laden region offers prime camping, fishing, and deer and bear hunting, it becomes a tourist destination. In 1997 and '98, Aroostook gained some unexpected notice when the band Phish played a series of Woodstock-like rock concerts at the abandoned Loring Air Force Base.

Aroostook faces many of the problems that typically confront rural areas: isolation, poverty, and an ever-thinning population. More than 100,000 people lived in the county as recently as 1960, but that number has now dwindled to around 77,000. The biggest recent hit came in 1994, when the military base closed, eliminating 8000 jobs. Unemployment hovers around seven percent, about one and a half times the national average, and wages are low: the per capita income in Aroostook in 1996 was less than $19,000. In recent years, the local economy has begun to stabilize as the sagging farming and logging industries have been supplemented by factory and retail jobs, and by a small surge of professionals arriving from urban areas. Houlton, the county seat, is home to a recently expanded Smith & Wesson plant that makes all the company's handcuffs and .22-caliber pistols. Houlton also has a Burger King and a Wal-Mart. Still, like the rest of Aroostook, it has a decidedly small-town pace. There is one movie theater, one video store, and an auto-parts shop at the town line called Hubcap Heaven. Mennonite families sell vegetables out of the parking lot of a vacant pizza parlor. The motto on the masthead of the local newspaper, the Houlton Pioneer Times, reads: THE ONLY NEWSPAPER IN THE WORLD INTERESTED IN HOULTON, MAINE.

It may not be the liveliest of places, but residents praise the Aroostook region for its unhurried way of life, its neighborly intimacy, and its affordability -- a handsome four-bedroom Victorian house in downtown Houlton can be had for around $50,000. "I think they're the friendliest people you ever want to meet," says Allan Bean, a native Texan who was Loring's last base commander and now serves as Houlton's town manager. "It's the way the world was -- the way people were in the 1950s. You should lock your car, but you don't need to. You know all the kids. Everyone knows everyone -- and everyone looks after everyone."

Crime in Aroostook is generally very low -- weekly police reports feature minor incidents such as hunting without a permit, petty larceny, and drunken snowmobiling -- but illicit drugs have been part of the local landscape for some time. Historically, the chief drug (besides, of course, alcohol) has been marijuana: local farmers hiding crops in the middle of the woods, roommates harvesting plants in the basement. Cocaine, crack, heroin, and LSD made occasional appearances. Small amounts of methamphetamine, too, had trickled in and out of northern Maine for years, but the supply was fairly limited. A trucker or a local laborer might be arrested for simple possession, or a small-time dealer might be busted, but that was about the extent of it.

The current methamphetamine problem in Aroostook is a totally different beast. Since about five years ago, when police first began noticing methamphetamine in the region, the supply has steadily increased. In 1995, agents from the MDEA (a separate operation from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA) seized 106 grams of meth in Aroostook County, enough to supply more than a couple hundred users (one gram of meth can supply eight to 20 "hits"). No meth was seized in 1996, but in 1997, the total rose to 429 grams. The next year, 788 grams were seized, and 1999 -- thanks to the big bust in May -- has seen a haul of more than 3000 grams so far. Those sums are quite small compared to the totals in meth-infested regions like the West Coast, but they are not insignificant, either. "Seven pounds is a big case in anyone's book, whether it's Maine or California," says McCloskey, the US Attorney. "And the thought of it in Aroostook is startling, to say the least."

And it appears that Aroostook's seizures are unrivaled elsewhere in New England. Though the US Drug Enforcement Administration's New England field office reports that methamphetamine use has been rising in this area over the past few years -- a clandestine lab was seized in Westport, Massachusetts, in January 1998, for example -- it's fair to say that it's not yet common in this part of the country, where cocaine, crack, and heroin remain the top problems. "We've not seen as severe a meth problem as we've seen in other parts of the country," says New England DEA spokesperson Pamela Mersky-Hay. "However, the availability is increasing." Tom Clark, a Boston-based epidemiologist who monitors New England drug trends for the National Institutes of Health's Community Epidemiology Work Group, agrees that meth is a small part of the overall local drug landscape. "There's been very little activity," Clark says. "What's going on in Maine looks like one of those unpredictable blips."

It can be difficult for a person from New England to appreciate the extent of the methamphetamine problem that plagues much of this country. But make no mistake: in many parts of the US, meth is the illegal drug of the 1990s. Fueled by well-organized Mexican cartels (which have largely supplanted the outlaw biker gangs that once dominated the trade) and a burgeoning network of clandestine domestic labs, crank has positively exploded this decade in Hawaii, California (where authorities seized 1006 meth labs last year), Oregon, Washington, and southwestern states including Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico. Recently, the meth trade has rammed headlong into the Rockies and the nation's heartland, and the drug is now commonplace in Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, and Kansas. In Kansas, for example, authorities seized four clandestine methamphetamine labs five years ago; this year, they had seized 238 by the end of May.

This crisis has confounded state and local authorities and has frustrated federal officials, who continue to funnel money toward the problem and to rewrite drug laws so that they punish meth suppliers more severely. In 1996, President Clinton signed the Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act, which, among other things, gave authorities more money to detect and seize clandestine labs. Two years ago, US drug czar Barry McCaffrey designated Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) for methamphetamine; North Dakota was added in February of this year. Though meth use is reported to have stabilized and even diminished slightly in hot spots like Southern California, there is no indication that the drug is on the decline overall. An advance copy of the 1999 findings of NIH's Community Epidemiology Work Group concludes that "there is strong evidence that [methamphetamine] will continue to be a problem in West Coast areas and to spread to other areas of the United States."

"I think you can use the word 'epidemic,' " says Michael Gorman, a drug epidemiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle who has spent several years studying the methamphetamine problem in the US. "We've seen increases [in use] on the West Coast on the order of 1000 percent, and the drug continues to move along."

One reason meth has taken off, Gorman believes, is that the drug is equally appealing to both suppliers and users. Suppliers like the fact that crank -- which, unlike cocaine or heroin, is a purely synthetic drug -- can be manufactured relatively cheaply from ingredients available over the counter in a pharmacy or supermarket. Most of today's meth is based on pseudoephedrine, the active ingredient in many cold medications, and synthesized with acrid combinations of acids, ether, phosphorus, lighter fluids, and household solvents such as Drano. The process for making meth is highly volatile and dangerous -- more than a few clandestine labs have exploded, killing the chemists inside -- but many dealers consider the payoff worth the risk. A modest batch of methamphetamine that costs several hundred dollars to make can fetch a street profit in the tens of thousands of dollars.

As for drug users, they are attracted to methamphetamine for its cheap and powerful high. A stimulant that affects the central nervous system, today's methamphetamine is not to be confused with the pill-form amphetamines, such as "black beauties," that were used by everyone from sweatshop workers to grad students to disco divas from the late 1960s to the early '80s. The current versions, which can be snorted, smoked, or injected, are vastly more powerful. Like cocaine, it's coveted for the euphoric, adrenaline-like rush it provokes -- but unlike a cocaine high, which will typically last less than half an hour, a meth high can last several hours. Some people start using meth thinking it will help them stay awake through a long day of work, only to encounter side effects that include dramatic weight loss, sleeplessness, and intense feelings of paranoia. It can also be brutally addictive, and it's not uncommon for meth addicts to move from snorting or smoking to injecting, which puts them at risk for HIV and hepatitis infection. Serious addicts, called "tweakers," will binge to the point where they do not sleep at all for several days. (Methamphetamine has also been associated with violence, but that relationship may be exaggerated; a recent study by the US Department of Justice found that meth users were actually less likely to commit violent crimes than other drug users, though that conclusion was roundly rejected by authorities in the field.)

Substance-abuse counselors say they are amazed by methamphetamine's power. "You see it in the intense paranoia and cravings," says Donald Carson, the director of Aroostook Mental Health Center, a private nonprofit organization that operates six outpatient facilities in the county. "That's the one thing that stands out for me -- the cravings, and the total devastation that occurs in [users'] lives as they try to keep their supply going. You have people who run up $10,000 to $15,000 credit-card debts, they're having these [meth] parties, they're overdosing. They're living literally right on the edge."

Given the hyperbole and scare tactics that have characterized much of the federal government's drug policy over the past two decades, it's easy to be cynical when officials lament an emerging drug trend. The same can be said of the media's treatment of drugs: it's hard to separate the truth from the exaggerated fiction. But there's little doubting meth's impact in Aroostook. "I haven't seen this kind of character disintegration since when I was in the service in the 1970s, when heroin was a big problem in the military," says Carson. "You'd see young people coming over at the age of 18 and getting addicted, and then they are sneaking around, stealing things from other kids . . . when I see young people using meth and moving on and injecting it, you see a lot of the same character destruction."

And while meth is known to be popular among blue-collar white males, particularly in the Midwest and California's central valley -- where it is sometimes referred to as the "poor man's coke" or "white-trash crack" -- studies have shown that the drug's user population now crosses all demographic lines. ("White-trash crack" is a particularly misguided term, given that the majority of crack users are themselves poor and white. In Aroostook County, methamphetamine is being used by people with white-collar jobs; one local substance-abuse counselor says he's seen a growing number of male and female nurses trying meth. Use among women in general is up, too. "And they [women] aren't just snorting it, either -- they're injecting it," says Mark Nelson, who works out of Aroostook Mental Heath's office in Houlton. "This one lady was telling me it got to the point where she was shooting up every day. She was a total physical wreck, and she couldn't do anything."

Not surprisingly, the drug is also catching on with teenagers. Nelson, who advises students in several local high schools, says that the teenage user population in northern Maine is limited to a few kids, but there's plenty of adolescent curiosity. "If you say 'crystal meth' [to kids], they'll know what you're talking about," he says. "They all know someone who's using it."

Over a couple of days in Houlton, I spent time talking with a number of teenagers, and though few of them report first-hand experience with meth, almost all say they've heard of it and know people who've tried it. This may not point to a teenage meth problem, but it does show how the drug has become part of the community discourse. If you were to ask a group of teenagers in Boston, Newton, or Brookline about drugs, for example, almost all of them could tell you ad infinitum about pot, coke, or heroin, but if you mentioned crank, most of them would have no idea what you were talking about. This is clearly not the case in Aroostook.

Karla Davis, who lives several miles from Houlton in the town of Bridgewater, knows how easy it is to get swept up in the meth scene. Davis, a mother in her late 30s, became involved a few years ago in what authorities describe as one of the region's first and biggest methamphetamine-dealing operations. Busted in 1997, six members of that operation -- known as the Bridgewater Group -- have pled guilty to various federal counts of methamphetamine trafficking. Davis's boyfriend, Randall Hunemuller, got 22 years in a federal prison. Davis, who says she simply got entangled in her boyfriend's business, was sentenced to 90 days in jail and 120 days of home confinement.

Now back in Bridgewater, Davis says she is clean and has withdrawn from Aroostook's drug world. But when she was involved, Davis says, there was no shortage of people wanting to buy some crank. "It seemed that anyone who tried it got interested in it," she recalls. "Seemed like it was everyone -- a lot of people, not just high-school dropouts. Businesspeople. And I'm sure there were kids who were getting their hands on it."

Davis is uncomfortable talking about her brush with the illicit-drug trade. But she perks up for a moment when asked what she liked about meth. "I always thought it was great," she says matter-of-factly. "Better than cocaine or any of that other stuff. But my boyfriend had a big problem with it. And I just got caught up with my boyfriend."

The top person in charge of tackling Aroostook County's methamphetamine problem is an MDEA agent named Darrell O. Crandall Jr., the agency's supervisor for the region. A stocky, soft-spoken 32-year-old, Crandall says he left the sheriff's department to join MDEA in 1989 because he was "looking for a challenge." In methamphetamine, he says, he has found that challenge.

Crandall's MDEA unit is based in Houlton, in an office on the second floor of the town's old brick county courthouse. Since 1995, he says, MDEA has arrested close to 50 people on methamphetamine-related charges in Aroostook. Very few of these busts, he emphasizes, have been for simple possession. The vast majority have been for distribution, like the arrest of Richard Leyva, a 27-year-old Presque Isle resident originally from Texas, who led authorities to the record seven-pound seizure that flabbergasted local officials in May. "We've never seized seven pounds of cocaine, I can tell you that," Crandall says.

As is common in the drug-enforcement trade, much of Crandall's intelligence about the Aroostook meth scene comes from undercover informants and incarcerated suspects looking to swap information for reductions in prison time. As a result, most of MDEA's meth cases have been built piecemeal over a period of months, sometimes years. For example, the case against the Bridgewater Group began in 1995, when MDEA agents, who were looking for an indoor marijuana crop, obtained a search warrant for a home in Mars Hill. Inside the home, agents found about three ounces of a white powder that they assumed was cocaine, but that turned out to be meth. The MDEA kept the investigation open, and more than a year later, when reports of increased methamphetamine began to hit the Mars Hill-Bridgewater-Houlton area, they began paying attention to individuals from the original pot case and discovered that some were bringing meth into Aroostook via air mail. In September 1997, agents arrested Randall Hunemuller at the Mars Hill post office after he picked up a package from California containing slightly less than a pound of methamphetamine. The arrest of Hunemuller, who was from California, led to the arrests of five other people involved in the operation, including Karla Davis, who was waiting in a car at the post-office parking lot, and Hunemuller's brother, Richard, the supplier, in La Mesa, California. Authorities believe that before they were caught, members of the Bridgewater Group were responsible for distributing more than six pounds' worth of methamphetamine, an amount with an estimated street value in the hundreds of thousands.

But since the arrests of the Bridgewater Group, it appears that Aroostook's meth demand has only increased. Part of the problem is that the methamphetamine trade, both nationally and in northern Maine, is very difficult for authorities to tackle: unlike cocaine and heroin, which are typically dominated by specific crime organizations and international smugglers, meth is furnished by an extremely diffuse web of distributors including everyone from mom-and-pop dealers and dorm-room chemists to large cartels. Darrell Crandall says that Aroostook's meth trade behaves more like a small business than a major drug-running network, and it's hard to put a finger on who's doing what. Dealing operations are small, typically confined to a few individuals who are using as well as selling. There is no street-level dealing to speak of in Aroostook; exchanges are usually arranged in advance, and made in homes and cars, away from public view. (The going rate for meth in Aroostook is $100 a gram, which is consistent with the national average, and is also the local price for cocaine -- but again, meth's powerful high makes it a more attractive buy for many users.)

For a tiny law-enforcement team working in an extremely rural area, stopping a meth wave can be like trying to catch a housefly between two fingers. Crandall's biggest problem is his lack of personnel. In addition to himself, there are only two other MDEA agents in Houlton. (Crandall also oversees Washington County to the south, where another agent is posted.) Though Crandall and his agents do get assistance from state and local police, the US Border Patrol, MDEA agents from other jurisdictions, and even an occasional US DEA agent (and Crandall is quick to praise all these contacts), he's desperate for help.

"I have the technology," he says. "I have the knowledge base, as do the people working for me. I have the cooperation of [other law-enforcement agencies]. I simply need people to get the job done."

It's clear that the drug fascinates Crandall even as it torments him. When I visit him in his office one day, he goes to an evidence room, takes out a red toolbox, unlocks it, and pulls out a large plastic bag. Inside is a thick pile of methamphetamine, most of it in large, irregular crystalline chunks. It looks like a bag of dirty, oversized rock candy. Crandall opens the bag and tells me to take a brief whiff. The meth has a putrid, chemically intense odor, not unlike the rotten-egg scent of burning sulfur. "Smells terrible, doesn't it?" he says.

I ask Crandall to describe the meth addicts he's encountered. "Well, most of them have almost uncontrollable movements," he says. "Their head and arms will flail, they'll pick at particular spots on their arms and face, they'll sweat and rock back and forth on their feet. And if it's extended use, they're paranoid."

Crandall shakes his head. After nearly five years of fighting meth, he's not about to give up, but he knows that interdiction alone won't solve anything. He expresses concern that the new drug problem isn't getting enough attention, and that there aren't enough rehabilitation outlets for Aroostook residents. And most of all, he worries that the locals who try meth don't know what they're getting into. "There are people who use this drug who believe their intentions are genuine," Crandall says. "There are people who take [meth] thinking it will make them work harder -- laborers who figure they can squeeze out four to five extra hours a day don't think twice. They may be right in the short term, but they are terribly misinformed about the eventual consequences."

But why Aroostook? After all, the rest of New England has largely been spared from the national meth epidemic. Even Crandall is puzzled. "I get that question all the time from law enforcement, from members of the media," he says, "and I don't have an answer."

It's true that Aroostook County possesses many of the same characteristics as meth-saturated regions elsewhere in the country, particularly the midwestern states. It is rural, economically deprived, almost exclusively white, and home to a sizable blue-collar population. Like people in the Ozarks or on the Nebraska plains, people in Aroostook can suffer from loneliness and isolation (what Mark Nelson describes as the "nothin' to do" problem), which can contribute to substance abuse. And meth is no ordinary substance; users share an almost cult-like devotion to the drug. "These people hang together, despite extraordinary crises going on, in order to be close to the drug," says Donald Carson of Aroostook Mental Health. "It's a very intense network of dealers and users that is very difficult to break apart. It's just as intense as the drug itself, and it's a very seductive lifestyle that is difficult to extract yourself from."

But how did the drug get there in the first place? There are plenty of theories. Some believe that Aroostook's current meth wave started with itinerant truckers, who brought the drug up Route 1 and turned locals on to it. Crandall agrees that some methamphetamine came into the county with truckers, but he thinks that they weren't the main suppliers and certainly aren't nowadays. "We know that in the past, meth has been brought here by commercial transport -- trucks -- and I'm sure that continues," he says. "But the vast amount of seizures are not coming in by [that method]."

Others suspect that methamphetamine is coming into the area through Canada, with which Aroostook shares a border hundreds of miles long. Smugglers have often brought illicit drugs, especially marijuana, from Canada into this country (and vice versa), and though the US Border Patrol maintains a presence in the region, nearly everybody I speak to in Aroostook claims to know a place -- a lake, a wooded patch, a dirt road -- where it is easy to sneak across the international line. One afternoon, Crandall drives me to a bumpy dirt road on the outskirts of Houlton, less than a mile away from the official border checkpoint at the end of Interstate 95. Stopping his car, Crandall points to a small opening between an overgrown thicket of trees. "See that clearing?" he asks. "That's Canada."

To date, however, no border smugglers have been caught with methamphetamine in Aroostook. Neither is there any clear evidence that the drug is being manufactured locally; the last meth-lab seizure in Maine was in 1990, when agents raided one in Washington County.

This doesn't mean that local production isn't happening, however. It is no secret that methamphetamine chemists favor rural locations, not only for their low levels of law enforcement, but also because it is easier to hide the drug's telltale odor. (For dealers, this problem is not insignificant: in other parts of the country, drug-enforcement agents are training everyone from cable-television installers to Avon salespeople to recognize what a clandestine meth lab smells like.) Crandall, in fact, was part of a Maine contingent that recently attended a DEA workshop on clandestine lab detection in Quantico, Virginia. When I ask Crandall what he would say if he had to bet whether there's a lab somewhere in Aroostook, he doesn't hesitate: "Yes."

"We can't preclude the fact that someone might get the idea to make this illegal substance, given the fact that all the chemicals are available at your neighborhood Wal-Mart," says Roy McKinney, the MDEA director.

Still, authorities believe that most of the methamphetamine arriving in Aroostook is coming by air mail, as in the Bridgewater Group case. (Citing its ongoing investigation into the recent Richard Leyva case, the MDEA declines to say where the seven pounds of meth it seized in May came from. They won't even specify where the meth was found, saying only that Leyva "led" them to it.) Though sending drugs through the mail has its risks -- shipments can't be especially large, and packages must be carefully sealed and disguised to avoid detection -- it's relatively easy for a West Coast or Midwest supplier to send a shipment to Maine.

If most of Aroostook's methamphetamine supply is coming by mail, it undermines the theory that the region was somehow predisposed to a problem for reasons of geography or economy. After all, every community has access to air mail. Every community, blue-collar or white-collar, has potential meth addicts. The reality is that chance -- random bad luck -- may have had as much to do with meth's invasion of Aroostook as any other factor. For example, the leader of the Bridgewater Group came from California. He knew about meth, his brother sent it to him, he got hooked, other people got hooked, and the drug took off. The same chain of events could have happened anywhere, and as the national experience has shown, it does happen almost anywhere. In evaluating the methamphetamine problem in northern Maine, the proper question to ask isn't "Why?" It's "Why not?"

That said, it is still uncertain whether Aroostook's methamphetamine trade is an aberration or a sign that the drug will work its way into the rest of New England. Certainly, some experts see it as a danger sign. "It's still a locally based problem, but as the Midwest has found out, it didn't take very long to spread across the country from California to Iowa and Missouri," says Jay McCloskey, the Maine US Attorney. Pamela Mersky-Hay of the DEA says that federal agents are keeping close watch on developments in northern Maine, as well as in the rest of New England. "We don't want to get hit like we've gotten hit in the West and Midwest," she says. "We don't want to see the human wreckage we've seen elsewhere in the country."

But authorities are concerned that many residents don't realize how devastating meth's spread could be -- and sometimes, people aren't aware of the problem at all. When I call the Maine Office of Substance Abuse, I talk to a researcher who is intimately familiar with other drug trends but positively surprised by the news of Aroostook's meth crisis. Even in Aroostook, crank has yet to achieve critical mass as a public-health issue. Almost everyone I speak to in the county is aware of the recent meth seizures and arrests, but many of them seem to think that the drug is just a fad, that the current trouble will be short-lived. A number of people attribute the drug's rise in the area to transients -- and postulate that when the out-of-towners are gone, methamphetamine will go too.

"There's some denial that it isn't as bad as they've heard," says Mark Nelson, the Houlton counselor. "There are some people who think [users] are just weekend warriors, stuff like that. But it's bad. It's all bad."

Just ask Scott Hafford, the man who tried to rob the supermarket in Fort Kent nearly two years ago. Before he started using meth, Hafford says, he was married with three children and gainfully employed as a construction worker, skilled in everything from carpentry to roofing to steel work. Drugs were not a part of his life. "My idea of a good time was renting movies and staying home with the kids," he says. "Of course, I drank my beer, but I was kind of a homebody."

Hafford says he was working one day when someone introduced him to methamphetamine. The person told him that if he just took a little snort of crank, he could "work 18 hours a day, drink all night, and go right back to work the next morning," Hafford recalls. At first, he got some meth for free, but soon, he started paying. Within weeks, Hafford says, he found himself hooked. He plunged into Aroostook's burgeoning methamphetamine scene -- a netherworld he recalls as "paranoid and gun-toting, with everyone suspicious of everyone," and marked by weekend crank parties where "90 out of 100 people were using."

Barely six months after he first tried meth, Hafford attempted his botched armed robbery in Fort Kent. After bingeing on crank for five days, he says, he went up to the northern town after abandoning an attempt to settle a score with a drug dealer in Bangor. To this day, Hafford says he intended simply to go get beer, but wound up trying to rob the place instead. Details are still sketchy to him -- "I was on autopilot," he says -- but he remembers telling the employees to open the safe, and then waving his gun around when they couldn't. He even remembers the young store employee who told him he shouldn't leave empty-handed. "I'm on my way out the door, and the kid says, 'You didn't get nothing -- you should at least get some beer,' " Hafford says. "I admire that kid."

Hafford practically chuckles at his lack of skill as a robber. "It was as poorly planned as a project could have happened," he says. But he doesn't attempt to minimize his crime or its impact on the people in the market that night. "I scared the hell out of them people," he says. "And I'm very sorry about that."

Hafford pled guilty to robbery, use of a firearm during the commission of a federal crime of violence, and possession of an unregistered short-barreled shotgun. His pastor, his boss, an aunt, and a town official all testified at his sentencing hearing in Bangor, and Hafford wrote letters apologizing to all the workers in the market, but it didn't help much: he got 10 years. People familiar with the case are disturbed by what they describe as an honest life that spiraled out of control because of drugs. "I've been doing this work for 12 years," says Bangor attorney Terence Harrigan, who represented Hafford. "And of all the cases I've tried, this one bothers me the most." Says US Attorney McCloskey: "He wasn't necessarily a choirboy, but he had a life."

Scott Hafford, born and raised in northern Maine, is now a resident of the Federal Correctional Institution in Fairton, New Jersey. He has eight years left on his sentence, with no chance of parole. His wife has divorced him, and his contact with his three teenage children is sporadic. He says he doesn't think about what he's going to do when he gets out of prison, because that time is too far away. Right now, Scott Hafford says he can't think about freedom. But he does think about methamphetamine. "In total honesty, I still miss that stuff," he says. "It gets that kind of hold on you."

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