Funding Cuts Could Hamstring Anti-Drug Effort

By Beacon Staff

Law enforcement in Northwest Montana and across the state are preparing for the fight against illegal drugs to get tougher, with funding slashed for a federal grant that provides most of the money for the state’s seven drug task forces. A campaign is now underway to restore the funding to the Iraq War supplemental spending bill in April, but if the funds don’t come through, the results could be grim.

Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan anticipates annual funding for the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force dropping from about $219,000 to under $80,000 when the next fiscal year begins July 1.

“It’s going to devastate the drug task force,” Meehan said.

The cuts come as a result of President Bush’s fiscal year 2008 budget, which he signed into law Dec. 21. The Bush administration has stated repeatedly that the federal government should not be the primary means of paying for law enforcement. Its current budget reflects that by severely reducing funding for the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, which finances most drug enforcement efforts in almost every state. In fiscal years 2007 to 2008, the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) dropped from $520 million nationally to $170.4 million, a 67 percent cut.

Roland Mena, executive director of the state Board of Crime Control said Montana’s share of the grant ebbs and flows, but usually hovers around $2 million annually. Last year, Montana received $2.1 million total for anti-drug programs, $1.2 million of which went straight to drug task forces. But Mena sees that dropping to $700,000 this year, leaving $400,000 for task force money that, he added, “provides funding primarily for boots on the ground.”

The Northwest Montana Drug Task Force is a multi-jurisdictional unit composed of deputies from Flathead, Lake and Lincoln counties, as well as a tribal officer from the Flathead Reservation. JAG funds account for about half of the salaries of the task force officers, who enter the unit for rotations lasting a few months to a few years.

Like Meehan, Geno Cook, commander of the Northwest Drug Task Force, is concerned the funding cuts could hinder what progress his team has made in fighting drugs so far. “It’s that one step forward, two steps back thing,” Cook added. “Without the manpower to investigate these, we’re going to be hamstrung.”

The task force tackles drug investigations that can take a long time to come to fruition through surveillance, interviews and research, Cook said, and these cases often require more resources than the average patrol officer – who is focused on the everyday duties of public safety – can devote to them. “There’s a lot of things that go into a drug investigation that are time-consuming,” Cook said. “It’s specialized work that takes knowledge of the drug world.”

Cook is currently focused mainly on cocaine busts, but has seen a “resurgence” of methamphetamine use over the last three to six months, adding that meth remains the greatest threat because of its virulent effect on society.

Meth use in Montana remains double the national average, but over the last several years, the combination of a graphic public awareness campaign, legislation and tough law enforcement has made substantial progress against the drug’s stranglehold on the state. A September 2007 report showed Montana’s meth abuse ranking had dropped to No. 39, from No. 5 in 2005. The number of meth-related offenses statewide dropped from 1,259 in 2005 to 589 in 2006. Meth labs are decreasing, with 16 meth-lab incidents reported in 2006, down from 88 in 2002.

Closer to home, the Northwest Task Force went from busting 37 labs within its jurisdiction in 2002, to two labs last year. But Cook acknowledges that while labs have decreased, demand for meth remains high, which means the drugs – no longer produced here – are coming in from places like Spokane, Seattle, Utah and Arizona. Stopping drugs means stopping their transport, Cook said, making the task force’s ability to monitor drug trafficking networks, and its close communication with neighboring counties essential.

If the funding cuts go through, Cook anticipates no task force drug investigations in Lincoln County, two agents dropped in Lake County and at least one less agent in Flathead County. “Is it going to hurt us? Yes, it will have some negative effect on the task force,” he added. “But I don’t want to give the impression that we’re going away either.”

A coalition of law enforcement groups are now waging a campaign to restore JAG funds to previous levels, roughly $660 million, believing many members of Congress signed off on the massive budget bill without realizing the cuts to drug task force funding it contained. Earlier this month Attorney General Mike McGrath signed a letter of support with fellow attorneys general across the U.S. urging the funds be restored. Democratic U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, along with Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., have also said they support restoring the funds.

Meehan and Cook stress that even if the cuts happen, the task force will continue to operate, though its range is likely to shrink mainly to Flathead County and Kalispell. Without the JAG grant, McGrath is advising the task forces to hang on for the year, anticipating that a different president, and a new Congress, will likely restore the funding.

“We have come so far in Montana in terms of doing effective anti-drug programs,” McGrath said. “I would hate to see it stop now.”

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