2012-06-29 / Community

Cape, South Portland deal with drug problems

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

Prescription drug abuse in Maine is on the rise, and that worries law enforcement officials both at the state and local levels.

Overall crime jumped in Maine 5.4 percent in 2011, as compared to the previous year, which state officials said was the highest increase in the crime rate since 1975. The main reason for that spike in crime, according to Public Safety Commissioner John Morris, is prescription drug abuse.

“These people are sick with their addiction. They just don’t care. They need to get a fix of that sickness they have, so they are becoming more brazen,” Morris said.

Morris said between 2008 and 2009, Maine had a total of six pharmacy robberies. In 2011, there were 24.

When a man threatened a clerk and stole OxyContin pills from a CVS pharmacy in Augusta on Monday, June 18, it was the 23rd pharmacy robbery already registered in 2012. The next pharmacy robbery will match the total for the calendar year of 2011, and the 2012 calendar year is still less than half finished.

Morris added that during the last three years, deaths resulting from prescription drug overdose have exceeded deaths caused by highway accidents.

The city of South Portland’s overall crime rate in 2011 did not follow the trend seen in the state figures. South Portland saw an 8.7 percent decrease in overall crime last year. But South Portland Police Chief Edward Googins said the drug problem is still a major concern in the city, and he agreed with state officials’ assertion that increased prescription drug abuse is driving overall crime higher.

“The drug problem is really not going away. We’re barely impacting the drug problem. We’ve seen different types of drugs. Prescription drugs are big at this time for some reason. No matter what the drug of choice is, it’s a constant problem throughout the state. It does drive a lot of the other crime that we have in this city,” Googins said.

There were 89 drug-related crimes committed in South Portland in 2011, up from 82 in 2010, an 8.5 percent increase. The other disturbing trend Googins noted was the spike in aggravated assaults —38 in 2011, up from 33 in 2010, or a 15.1 percent increase.

Similarly, there was a 16.3 percent increase in aggravated assaults in 2011 across the state, as well as a 15.3 percent increase in simple assaults. Aggravated assault results in serious injury and usually involves a weapon.

In Cape Elizabeth, Police Chief Neil Williams said drug problems are usually manifested through robberies from motor vehicles. Addicts will take an iPod, cell phone or other valuables from a car to then pawn to buy alcohol or drugs, Williams said. He said criminals often target large public areas such as Fort Williams Park or Two Lights State Park, where there are a lot of vehicles in a relatively small area, especially on a hot summer day.

There were 56 burglaries from motor vehicles in 2011 in Cape Elizabeth. So far in 2012, there have been 15, Williams said.

To cut down the number of burglaries, Williams said Cape Elizabeth police will keep a watchful eye on those particular areas and “try to stay vigilant.” Also, officers will sometimes walk a “foot beat” through a residential neighborhood, both to keep an eye out for motor vehicle thefts and to familiarize themselves with residents in order to better facilitate communication.

Cape Elizabeth police have also conducted three medication drop offs, in which residents deposited unused and unwanted drugs at the police station. The purpose of the event is to keep drugs out of homes and dispose of them safely to protect the environment and cut down on overdoses. The most recent drop off occurred on April 28. Williams said the amount of drugs deposited at the drop-offs has steadily increased.

“Normally, you do two and you think, ‘Hey, we put a significant dent in the prescription drugs hanging around the household.’ No, the next time you do it there’s more that get dropped off.”

While the upward trend in prescription drug use is disturbing, Maine Department of Public Safety Commissioner Morris noted in a press release that Maine “continues to be one of the safest states in the country.” Both Williams and Googins also stressed the relative safety of the South Portland and Cape Elizabeth communities.

“We are not a crime-ridden community, but we have crime, and we can’t let our guard down,” Googins said.

He added that South Portland residents can help make the community safer by reporting any crimes or suspicious activity to the police department.

“A lot of people don’t even call us. We want to hear this,” Googins said. “We need to know where and when (crimes) are occurring we can adjust.”

To combat drug-related crime on the state level, Gov. Paul LePage created a prescription drug task force comprised of both medical professionals and members from state law enforcement in January.

Morris will also sit down with the heads of all Maine pharmacies at a meeting on July 12 in a brainstorming session.

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