War on drugs tears apart two towns tied by common past

Border issues are in the news all the time, but what is easily forgotten is that tougher border laws are nothing new — they stretch back at least to 1986 and the passage of the federal Anti-Drug Act. Also, when we think of border issues, we tend to think of the country’s southern border. But changes in the law have had a big impact on our border with Canada as well. I wrote this story for United Press International about Forest City, Maine and Forest City, New Brunswick around 1988. What was once really a single community was cut in half by federal drug legislation.


FOREST CITY, Maine (UPI) — The nation’s war on drugs is tearing apart the tiny towns of Forest City, Me., and Forest City, New Brunswick, border communities that share a Baptist church, a cemetery and a common past.

In years past, residents of both sides of the St. Croix River could walk over the short bridge linking the two communities with little more than a wave and a smile for Bob Morrill, the local U.S. Customs Service agent.

Canadian youngsters walked across the bridge to dive into the village swimming hole below the dam at the foot of Grand Lake. On Sundays, some of the Americans would cross the bridge to attend services at the Baptist Church on the Canadian side.

But those days of easy passage are gone now, victims of tough new federal laws aimed at controlling over-the-border drug traffic.

Border Closes at 5 p.m.

These days, Morrill opens the station promptly at 8 a.m. and closes exactly at 5 p.m. No one may enter the U.S. at night or on weekends unless they immediately report to some other border crossing, perhaps in Orient, 15 miles to the north, or 20 miles down the St. Croix at Vanceboro.

Forest City is located 60 miles northeast of Bangor.

Pedestrians who used to come and go as they pleased must now follow the same rules as those who cross the border by car. Residents who used to walk over the bridge to enjoy an evening meal with relatives on the Canadian side may not return home after 5 p.m. unless they check in at another border crossing.

The lives of the 20 residents in Maine’s Forest City have been tied to their 40 neighbors across the river since both towns were founded-and when people from both towns worked in a now-defunct local tannery.

Lives Changed Forever

The new federal rules have changed the lives of the people on both sides of the border, perhaps forever.

“We have always lived as one town, it started back in the tannery days,” said Lance Wheaton, a registered Maine guide who operates a fishing camp. “It is the way we have always lived.”

For Wheaton and his brother, Lee, who operates another fishing camp, the problem is more than an inconvenience. As guides, both lead fishermen to area lakes, including lakes in Canada. The new regulations mean that fishermen must leave Canadian lakes by mid-afternoon in order to get back before 5 p.m.

“It is more than an inconvenience,” Wheaton said. “We could cope with the inconvenience. But the combination of the short staffing hours with the enforcement of the new entrance regulations, which I understand were designed to deal with problems along the Mexican border, has really put us in a pinch.”

Fishing Guides Hampered

To make matters worse, the Canadian government has been enforcing employment regulations limiting the circumstances under which Maine guides can lead fishing parties to Canadian lakes.

Emery Ingalls, district director for Maine for the U.S. Customs Service, agreed that the new rules have caused problems for local residents, but said there is little his department can do.

“The Anti-Drug Act of 1986 requires that people walking across (the border) also report,” he said. “Prior to that, it was unnecessary for a person who was not bringing back anything to report.”

“Unfortunately, it is not a change in our enforcement posture, but a change in the law.”

Problems for Residents

Ingalls said the law is aimed at helping the government crack down on drug trafficking across the border, something Lee Wheaton said he favored. But Wheaton said the impact of the new law creates more problems for local residents than for drug traffickers.

“We realize the government is after the dope smuggler and we are for that 100%, and we do our damnedest to help them,” he said. “But when the Border Patrol is in here trying to catch smugglers, all they are going to catch is someone who is five minutes late and who just wants to walk home.”


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