Local Agencies Face Uphill Battle in War on Drugs

| February 3, 2019

VENANGO CO., Pa. (EYT) – With the official “War on Drugs” approaching the half-century mark, local law enforcement agencies continue to face a number of challenges in the day-to-day battle against controlled substances in our communities.

President Nixon officially declared a “War on Drugs” in 1971, stating that drug abuse was “public enemy number one.”

According to a published article on history.com, President Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973. The DEA was given 1,470 special agents and a budget of less than $75 million to tackle both drug use and smuggling in the United States. Today, the agency has nearly 5,000 agents and a budget of $2.03 billion.

After nearly 50 years, Americans still see drug addiction as a major problem in their local community – regardless of whether they live in an urban, a suburban, or a rural area. Last year President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency. He pledged federal resources to help combat the growing drug problem which directs federal agencies to provide more grant money to combat the epidemic. This step helps cut through regulatory red tape and gives states more flexibility in how they use federal funds to fight the problem.

The Washington Post reported that drug deaths in the United States involving fentanyl increased nearly 600 percent from 2014 to 2016.

In Pennsylvania, drug overdose deaths have increased faster than drug deaths in any other state, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This problem presents an additional strain to local law enforcement agencies already deeply embroiled in the war on drugs.

“We’ve seen overdoses, and that’s one thing that I’ve said to people who don’t think very highly of us: It’s hard because we’ve seen things you can’t unsee. We’ve seen the rawness of families going through losing someone to an overdose,” Commanding Officer Captain Daniel J. Hines of the Pennsylvania State Police Troop E told exploreVenango.com.

“It’s very raw, very emotional, those overdose deaths, and there’s a ripple effect. It affects the first responders, the communities, it doesn’t affect just the family.”

When most people think of overdoses, they most often think of those who are addicted, but in today’s war on drugs, even overdoses are more complicated than that.

“With the advent of fentanyl, it’s to the point now where you don’t have to intentionally consume a controlled substance to overdose,” noted Chief Kevin Anundson of the Franklin Police Department.

Franklin Chief of Police Kevin Anundson

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, can be extremely dangerous both because of its potency, and because it can be easily absorbed through a person’s skin.

“The particulate matter alone can kill a person, and we have troopers and officers that are out there serving search warrants on houses and vehicles, placing themselves in harm’s way every day,” Hines said.

“There have been accidental overdoses just from officers coming into contact with fentanyl and overdosing. There’s a danger in even searching a car and overdosing because it somehow got in your system without you realizing it,” Anundson said.

Fentanyl has been found present in several local drug-related death cases.

Changing Tide of Illegal Drugs

While heroin, fentanyl, and other opiates continue to be an issue locally, like many other things, even controlled substances are subject to what could best be described as “trends” based on everything from user preferences to price and availability.

“Things seem to run in cycles,” said Oil City Chief of Police Robert Wenner. “Opioids became well-known, then meth began resurfacing. We just have to adapt to what we’re seeing on the street and attack it that way.”

“Everything goes around and around,” Chief Anundson noted. “We’ll get into a meth case, and arrest a bunch of people involved in selling and using it, and then we’ve made meth a bit more difficult to get ahold of, so other things get popular. It’s like playing whack-a-mole, it bounces around. You hit one thing hard and something else pops up. Even when we take out a bunch of players, it just pops back up quicker, there’s always someone else ready to take their place.”

These continuously shifting tides of different controlled substances, coming from different sources, offer one of the many challenges our local law enforcement agencies face in a battle that changes from day to day, but some of the other challenges come in very different forms.

Funding Challenges

“Many of the challenges come back to money, funding for investigations,” Chief Anundson said. “More and more funding on a state and national level for investigation has to do with the current political climate and what it is politically best for them to go after, like the opioid epidemic. The politicians want the money to go to that, so it can be hard to get money for meth cases unless we can show a tie to opiates.”

“We’re seeing crystal meth now at a rate of about six cases to two, and usually when we see opiates, it’s in combination with meth now,” Chief Wenner said. “Crystal meth has slid in under the noses of agencies pushing against opiates. Opiates are still a problem, but what we see now, even in overdose cases, is a mix of the two. We’re really seeing much more meth use on a daily basis, and if they’re also using heroin, they’re using both. That’s countywide, and it’s more than people think. It goes deeper to where crystal meth is being brought in in quantities greater than ever. The price is lower, and it’s more available.”

Drug-related Crimes

According to Wenner, another issue with drugs in any community comes in the form of other drug-related crimes.

“I don’t think the average person realizes the amount of crime associated with drug use, how they’re securing financing through burglary, theft, bad checks, stolen money at work. More than 80% of our calls involve drugs or alcohol in one way or another,” Wenner noted.

“So much of what we see is either a direct result of it (drug abuse) or aggravated by it, even in terms of illegal firearms and theft of firearms to fuel convicted felons who can’t legally possess them. We have seen more firearms being carried by dealers and users, and I think that has to do with the paranoia from crystal meth. It makes our job more dangerous, and it makes things more dangerous for average citizens.”

Whatever challenges our local law enforcement may face, this is a war of many battles that they will continue to fight.

“I don’t think any of us is immune, this epidemic is very real and certainly creates challenges for our guys out there,” Commander Hines said. “I don’t have the answer, I don’t think there’s a magic wand to wave for all the answers.”

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