Boston — Coastal New England is battling an unwanted new distinction.
Often rugged, scenic, and popular with tourists from far and wide, the area now serves a more sinister purpose: a major rival to Florida as the favorite destination of drug smugglers from South America and the Caribbean.
And law-enforcement officials are having an increasingly difficult time coping with the illegal traffic. By one US attorney's estimate, for every clandestine marijuana shipment into New England that is intercepted, nine others reach their intended destinations.
In fact, it is the federal pressure on smuggling into Florida over the past six months that is viewed as the cause of increased activity here. Drug-carrying ''mother'' ships can evade US military ships, radar planes, and helicopters that guard the access routes to Florida by sailing hundreds of miles east from Colombian ports before turning north toward New England. In doing so, their arrival time off the New England coast is still only two days later than it would be if they sailed straight for Florida, according to law-enforcement sources.
Using the cover of commercial and warm-weather pleasure-boat traffic, the contraband cargoes are then ferried ashore. And while New England coastal towns have yet to see much Florida-like phenomena such as suspected drug traders flashing large sums of money or paying cash for boats and airplanes, Penobscot County (Maine) Sheriff Tim Richardson says, ''We do see an increase in the number of people making their living in drug trafficking.''
Like Florida, this region has thousands of miles of hard-to-monitor coastline and many remote airstrips, often unmanned at night. Smugglers, bypassing Florida , are believed to refuel their planes in the Carolinas on the way north and then land on these airstrips after dark.
Two years ago Maine, perhaps the most vulnerable state, phased out one of the principal agencies charged with drug-law enforcement and has appropriated no money specifically for the antidrug effort this year.
Maine has become a distribution point for drugs smuggled into eastern Canada, where their street value is said to be higher than on the US market.
This summer, the US Coast Guard and other law-enforcement agencies have made no fewer than seven raids on smugglers or would-be smugglers between central Maine and Rhode Island. All but two of them have come at sea. The haul: just short of 100 tons of marijuana; boats; guns and other weapons; sophisticated communications and navigational equipment; large quantities of cash; and 61 arrests, including suspects from Colombia, Cuba, Jamaica, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee.
But some in police circles were dismayed last week by the news that 13 Coast Guard personnel stationed on Cape Cod, Mass., were caught with evidence of drug use. The 13, who now face disciplinary action, were not involved in antidrug search-and-seizure missions. But published reports indicate drug use among Coast Guardsmen in the region may be far more widespread.
''We couldn't get along without the Coast Guard,'' says Richard Cohen, US attorney for Maine. ''There is no question about it, the financial resources are not adequate. Manpower is not adequate.''
David Cheever, a spokesman for the New England Governors' Conference, says drug smuggling is ''a legitimate question'' that may well be on the agenda of the next regular meeting between the governors and the eastern Canadian premiers. ''It's a dangerous game,'' he says. ''We're lucky that we haven't lost some people.''
There is disagreement over the effectiveness of state and local antidrug efforts. Mr. Cohen cites an antismuggling task force that blends the resources of the state police, federal Drug Enforcement Agency personnel, and others and says, ''no one is going off on a tangent.'' But he concedes, ''We've only scratched the surface.''
Others say there is less cooperation than claimed and that local authorities resent federal officials - in the words of one source - ''bleeding them for information and sending them back home with nothing in return.''
Cohen says federal officials here are not at the point of asking for an antismuggling task force like the one operating in and near south Florida under the direction of Vice-President George Bush. ''But it might be realistic on a temporary basis to get a task force up here,'' he says.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Richardson says his department has had success locally by combining resources with those in surrounding counties as well as with police in the principal towns and at the central campus of the University of Maine, the largest school in the state. The program uses computer support and has helped result in 18 to 20 arrests for drug trafficking in the past 12 months.