OMAHA, Neb. — Thomas Monaghan doesn’t seem like much of a radical. But as the U.S. attorney for Nebraska sits in his corner office in a downtown bank tower, explaining how he’s watched meth descend like a plague on the nation’s heartland, Monaghan argues passionately that conventional law enforcement wisdom about fighting the drug war hasn’t worked.
Meth is too big a problem for Monaghan’s office to ignore. With 80 percent of his drug cases involving meth, its impact has been significant enough to make him rethink conventional tactics. He freely admits that major advances in fighting the drug can only be accomplished with a balance between fighting supply and reducing demand. Those views pit him against many of his fellow federal officials, most notably former U.S. drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey.
“The general doesn’t think that money needs to be spent on demand reduction,” Monaghan says. “He’s just absolutely wrong.”
The federal government — including McCaffrey and his Office of National Drug Control Policy — haven’t quite ignored the demand side of the drug equation. In recent years, the general has done an about-face on strategy, acknowledging the need for reducing demand. But most federal drug policies are still rooted in the crack wars of the 1980s and ’90s — which led to jammed prisons and six of every 10 federal inmates doing time for drug crimes. Supply, as far as Washington is concerned, is still king.
Monaghan’s conversion, as it were, began in 1996 during a “road show” around the state. Officials in Nebraska — and in neighboring states — told him of meth’s skyrocketing appeal and expressed frustration that few local authorities were aware of the crisis in their midst.
“This is really the first rural explosion of a hard drug,” Monaghan says. “We spent a lot of time going around and saying, ‘Excuse me, we’ve got a meth problem here. Do you even know what meth is?’”
As Monaghan strategized, Congress passed the Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996, which toughened drug sentences and targeted drug supplies by attempting to stem the availability of ingredients such as ephedrine. The gap between Washington and the front line kept growing.
A new approach
Mindful of that, Monaghan and other officials in Nebraska retooled the way they handled drug offenses. Nebraska meth users and small-time dealers get different treatment from major dealers and traffickers. Violent offenders are targeted for harsh prosecution, but other offenders may be sentenced to treatment. Special courts set up to deal only with drugs seek the best solution for each case.
Monaghan’s office helps coordinate the efforts of a dozen or so local and state agencies. Those efforts allow his attorneys to target big fish — moving higher and higher up the meth supply chain while drug courts try to pry small-time offenders out of the system.
“It’s really therapeutic jurisprudence,” says Judy Barnes, who coordinates Omaha’s drug courts. “It’s a deal for them … but it’s also a deal for society.”
Another crucial component of the drug war has been education. Because the ingredients to make meth are readily available, officials put together a campaign to warn retailers about the potentially illicit uses of products. Posters remind store employees to watch for large purchases of everything from cold pills to drain cleaner.
Drug education messages left over from the crack era were retooled with less preachy messages and a tone more forthright than alarmist. One memorable spot features a teen-age boy who appears to be dancing at a rave but is actually twitching on a bathroom floor in an apparent overdose. Broad themes that treated all drugs as equally harmful were rejected.
“Kids know that that’s not true,” says Nancy Martinez, who coordinates Monaghan’s local anti-drug efforts.
The idea spreads
Other Midwestern officials — including some very hard-nosed law enforcement officicers — are coming to share Monaghan’s views as they witness their communities in the midst of a quiet epidemic. Meth is growing exponentially more popular in the countryside, labs can be easily hidden in rural locations, ingredients are easy to get and, as Jerry Wells, executive director of the Koch Crime Institute in Topeka, Kan., points out: “We are in the middle of the country, so you can distribute to all four corners of the nation.”
This fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by the federal government, which designated Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota as its High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA, for the Midwest. Those states, and surrounding ones like Oklahoma, are veined with major transportation routes for traffickers coming east from California and north from Mexico. The impact is clear in cities such as Des Moines, where 14 percent of the people arrested for any crime in 1999 tested positive for meth.
The Midwest’s meth problem has hit cities and small towns alike, from the streets of Kansas City to the meat-packing plants of rural Iowa — and regular use is increasing.
Yet each community’s problem is different. Missouri, Kansas and central Iowa primarily face problems with meth labs; Nebraska, South Dakota and western Iowa battle trafficking by Mexican drug gangs. Rural Missouri counties report a high incidence of intravenous meth use.
Sioux City takes a stand
Officials throughout the region have struggled to find a strategy that works. Sioux City, Iowa, about 100 miles north of Omaha straight up Interstate 29, is the hub of a regional economy driven by agriculture and meat packing. During the second half of the 1990s, the city of 84,000 also had become a nexus for meth trafficking, not only because the city had such a large target population but also because it sat at the intersection of three states — Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. It was a convenient layout for traffickers; crossing state lines to evade capture was simply a matter of crossing town.
Meth: Danger in the makingIn 1995, police Chief Joe Frisbie and other local officials set up their Tri-State Drug Task Force, which coordinates drug work between at least nine agencies from the local police to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Task force members are federally deputized, which allows them to pursue drug crimes across state borders.
Though Mexican drug rings traffic much of the meth, other parts of Iowa struggle with small-time meth cooks. Most small cooks produce less than an ounce at a time, but the problem has grown exponentially. Iowa authorities uncovered two meth labs in 1994; by 1999, they found 803.
“For every one that learns to cook, they teach 10,” says Marti Reilly, one of the drug task force’s commanders. “It’s kind of the Amway pyramid thing.”
Help on the local level
Since the meth war is especially difficult for small-town authorities, Sioux City decided to share its expertise. In a set of squat, undistinguished buildings on a dirt road behind the local airport, Frisbie’s department set up the Regional Training Center, one of a handful of training centers in the United States that teaches local law enforcement to deal with meth.
“If you look at San Diego, San Francisco or Portland, Ore., and they’re overwhelmed by what’s going on, what do you think is going on in Hinton, Iowa?” asks Lt. Mel Williams, who runs the center. “We need to provide them with those same safety and security training issues.”
“The biggest problem we’d had with this thing is no one’s ever done it before,” Frisbie says. “You have a lot of officers who don’t understand a lot of things about drugs.”
Frisbie is a cop’s cop; he’s tall and imposing, with broad features and well-trimmed gray hair. He leaves an unmistakable impression that he’s committed to a law-and-order approach. But like Monaghan, Frisbie and his deputies take a practical view on the fight against meth.
“The only true solution to a problem like this is demand reduction,” Frisbie argues. “I don’t know if putting people in jail does a lot for demand reduction.”
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