Crystal meth produced by Mexican drug cartels arrives in New England

 “MX” for Borderland Beat; The Salem News

New England is a region comprising six states in the northeastern United States

For years, as other regions dealt with the fallout from crystal methamphetamine, New England seemingly had been spared, instead grappling with a deadly opiate addiction epidemic. But law enforcement experts say that has started to change — and that the powerful stimulant is showing up on the North Shore (Massachusetts area) more frequently.

Late last month, two Salem men were arrested in a Park Street apartment on charges related to methamphetamine distribution and a Stoneham man was indicted by an Essex County grand jury on methamphetamine trafficking charges stemming from his arrest back in June at a Middleton golf course. Last February, a Salem woman was arrested by Beverly police with 1 1/2 ounces of the drug in her handbag outside a Beverly store. And last week, an Arlington man was arrested by federal agents who say he was selling large quantities of the drug while based out of a Malden senior housing complex.

Veteran Salem police detective Lt. Stephen Bona, who oversaw the Salem case, called the drug’s increasing appearance in the area “scary.”

“It’s making inroads,” said Jon DeLena, associate special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration New England field office. “I think it’s solidified itself here in this region much more than anybody realizes.”

But why?

When Frank Consolo, 36, was arrested following a search of his 34 Park St. apartment in Salem that turned up more than a quarter ounce of crystal meth, along with some cocaine, he told officers that he had started selling the drug to make ends meet after losing his job, according to a police report. He also admitted to having used the drug.

Another person in the apartment, Michael Hanan, 37, was also arrested on drug possession charges.

In the Middleton case, Lawrence Poor, 39, was arrested after police were called about suspicious activity at the Ferncroft golf course on June 14 and charged with trafficking of between 36 and 100 grams of methamphetamine. He was indicted late last month.

DeLena said there have been pockets of meth use in New England — small kitchen labs have been found in rural New Hampshire and Maine, and the drug has been popular on the club scene. But the amounts have generally been small and the potency of the drugs relatively modest compared with what has turned up lately in New England — potent concentrations in significant amounts.

Mexican cartel involvement

DeLena, a North Shore native who grew up in Revere, said much of what has shown up in the Northeast in recent years is being produced by the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, where investigators have found massive hidden labs. The more potent lab-made meth “blows the doors off” homemade versions or the drugs produced in clandestine labs, said DeLena.

The cartel is producing both fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opiate that has started replacing heroin as the drug of choice, and methamphetamine. Investigators believe that the synthetic nature of fentanyl and methamphetamine make them far more profitable to the cartel than heroin and cocaine, where a bad growing season or some other setback for poppy or coca plant crops cuts down those profits.

The chemicals needed to produce both fentanyl and methamphetamine are also cheap and easily available overseas, DeLena said. One lab uncovered by investigators in Mexico was producing seven tons of methamphetamine every three days, said DeLena.

“The cartels have decided that even though no one has really asked for it, they’ve decided to start pumping methamphetamine into the market,” said DeLena. “They’ve created a market. They have better marketing than Fortune 500 companies.”

The sales pitch: opioid users are told that the stimulant will “help you get up off your ass” after using heroin. Other targets are people who have gone off opiates, sometimes through medication assisted treatment, but who still want to get high.

“Traditionally, these two cultures were at opposite ends of the spectrum,” said DeLena. Now it’s not uncommon to find users with both fentanyl and methamphetamine. And the combination is also showing up in toxicology tests during autopsies, he said. The drugs, particularly methamphetamine, quickly take a toll on bodies — and on minds. Often, users end up using both.

“It starts to unravel pretty quickly,” said DeLena. “We’ve done a really good job in our communities in treating people battling opiate addiction,” said DeLena. “They’ve created the Angel program up there. Our police officers are almost social workers.”

They’re trained to bring in Narcan, to show compassion for addicts who overdose. “What’s scary is if someone is using methamphetamine, it’s a completely different type of person you’re meeting on that call,” said DeLena. “They may get there and be into the fight of their lives.” During a recent meeting with police chiefs, two of them mentioned officers who were out injured due to violent confrontations with meth users.

In 2018, Matthew Rich, armed with a hypodermic syringe, went on a violent rampage in the parking lot of Beverly’s Cummings Center, attempting to carjack several bystanders and attacking people as they tried to stop him. His lawyer said last year during his sentencing that Rich, who had struggled for years with heroin addiction, had unknowingly ingested methamphetamine.

Despite increasing concerns at the national level about methamphetamine, DeLena said he’s had a tough time convincing some that it’s time to pay attention. He led a group of local police chiefs on a trip to Mexico last year, where they got to see the extent and sophistication of the operation.

He said the cartel is also starting to distribute pills made to look like prescription drugs, particularly oxycodone and hydrocodone, Xanax and Adderall, which instead contain fentanyl or meth. The customer base for Xanax and Adderall? High school and college kids.

“They’re targeting children,” said DeLena.