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No easy way to stem meth abuse

/ Source: The Spokesman-Review

Tough law enforcement alone can’t cure the Inland Northwest’s growing methamphetamine epidemic. “We’re not going to be able to arrest our way out of this situation,” said Roger Lake of the Washington State Narcotics Investigators Association.

“It's so far-reaching, there’s no easy fix,” said Debora Podkowa, a Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in Portland.

Experts say the battle must be fought on several fronts. Politicians and police agencies are chasing more money for anti-meth campaigns. Courts are encouraging addicts to choose treatment over jail time-and handing them stiffer sentences if they don’t. Retailers are trying to keep chemicals out of the hands of meth cookers. And citizen activists are wielding legal tools to reclaim their neighborhoods from meth-makers and users.

Former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who was defeated in the November elections, wanted $15 million of federal money to jump start four special squads that would do nothing but fight meth across the state. These units-made up of prosecutors, Department of Ecology staffers, police and social workers-would coordinate efforts when a meth lab is busted. The groups would have a total staff of 120. State police in Idaho are drafting their own request for money to fight meth.

Spokane city and county officers are being trained to collect evidence from smaller, less-hazardous meth-cooking sites-like those found in trunks of cars. This will reduce the need for a special Washington State Patrol team to fly in from Olympia to handle the work, cutting costs and saving time.

Sheriff’s departments in rural counties fear tougher enforcement in cities will push the meth problem outward, so they’re looking for dollars, too.

“The more pressure they’re putting on in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, the more they come to Benewah County,” said Sheriff Joe Blackburn, whose six deputies patrol more than 2,000 square miles.

Pend Oreille County Sheriff Jerry Weeks, who’s seen a meth lab spike in his territory, wants an additional full-time deputy to focus on drugs.

Treatment or jail time
The drug court is an important new tool to get addicts into treatment. In Kootenai County’s drug court, first-time felony offenders who complete nine months of supervised treatment get their charges reduced to misdemeanors. Thirteen people have graduated since the program began in October 1998.

About 50 percent make it through, said Tayna Gomez, drug court coordinator. The court is also taking on misdemeanor offenders who are teetering on the edge of more serious crimes. “They’re just riding that line of getting a felony in the future,” Gomez said. “Hopefully we can catch them.”

Spokane County established an adult drug court in 1996, adding a juvenile drug court last year. Of 195 adult offenders enrolled in Spokane drug court, 72 completed the program. Only seven reoffended.

“I’m more pleased with it than I ever expected to be ... even with methamphetamine users,” said Michael Kenny, a county public defender.

Yet many drug users choose jail over treatment, and others drop out. “It’s an awful lot easier to go sit in a jail cell and know that you can go get high when it’s all over,” said Superior Court Judge James Murphy.

Murphy and Kenny said drug court could become more effective by accepting other criminals - such as burglars who steal to support their drug habit. Offenders who don’t choose drug court face increasingly strict penalties.

Idaho’s Legislature last session drastically lowered the standards for felony charges of manufacturing and trafficking meth, which carries a minimum penalty of five years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Before, a trafficker had to be found with 28 grams of meth; now, just a trace must be found.

“We are asking for stronger sentences to try to make an impact,” said Jim Reierson, a deputy prosecutor in Kootenai County. “It’s not like you can shut it off at the border. If they can make it locally, how do you stop the flow?”

Washington parents who make meth in front of their kids will have an additional two years tacked onto their prison terms. The law was passed last session. Washington lawmakers also stiffened penalties on the theft of farm chemicals used to make meth.

Involving citizens and retailers is another way to combat meth. Wayne Longo, Idaho State Police captain, frequently talks with citizen groups about the growing meth scene. Businesses now call his office to report people trying to buy large quantities of cold or asthma pills, which can be used to make meth. Neighbors phone in to report suspicious activities or strange chemical smells. “People are incensed with it. There are people that are mad, just mad it’s there,” Longo said.

Amjad Anwar, owner of a Jackpot mini-mart on Sprague Avenue, used to sell up to six bottles of asthma pills to one customer. Now he will sell only two, and has doubled the price, to $10 per bottle.

The Washington State Retailers Association has made posters for its members that list common meth-making chemicals. It does not regulate the amount of chemicals that can be sold by member stores. “We hope to do that because the meth problem is on the rise,” said Pam Eaton, government affairs director with the retailers association. She said many large stores now limit sales of cold pills and other meth-making ingredients.

At Wal-Mart, a customer can buy no more than six bottles of medicine that contains psuedoephedrine. Cash registers are set to remind checkers that the items are restricted.

Neighbors take up the fight
Citizens are confronting meth in their neighborhoods. When Sally Hodl saw her next-door neighbor washing windows at 3 a.m. last summer, she knew what was going on. “When people do meth, they don’t sleep,” said Hodl, of the Spokane Valley Edgecliff neighborhood. “The lights and music never turned off,” she said.

Fed up, Hodl threatened to file a “Safe Streets” complaint against the home’s owner - a tactic frequently used in Edgecliff. In such cases, plaintiffs can win $2,500 each in damages through small claims court, if they can show a judge their community is being roiled by drug dealing, fights, loud music or other disturbances.

In Spokane, neighbors can work with city legal staff to have a drug house boarded up for one year under the nuisance abatement law. The legal staff argues the neighbors’ case before a Spokane County Superior Court judge.

After three meth raids and complaints about traffic and vandalism, a home at 1414 W. York in Spokane was shut down last June under the nuisance law. Neighbors worked closely with police, reporting suspicious activity and recording license plate numbers.

“At least this last 11 months has been a chance for the neighborhood to breathe a sigh of relief and not have to deal with that element,” said Carol Boisjolie, a neighbor on West York. New owners have cleaned the property and recently pulled the boards off the windows Coeur d’Alene residents living near meth labs have put together block watches. Some post notes on new renters’ doors telling them suspicious activity will be reported to police.

“You’ve got to keep the pressure up. At least a loosely united front,” said Coeur d’Alene resident Karen Mello, who’s seen two meth labs busted in her neighborhood.

There’s another citizen strategy to stop meth. Betty and Errol Arford have offered their immaculate farm house in Cataldo, Idaho, as a place where meth addicts can come for a dose of drug-free life. The mentoring program was started by Pastor Tim Remington, who heads the Cataldo Light House Church. Six families are involved, and 41 churches have said they want to be part of it. The church is acting because law enforcement alone can’t stop meth. Part of the solution is reducing demand.

“You teach (meth addicts) how to problem solve,” said Betty Arford, a self-reliance specialist with the state Department of Health and Welfare.

“They never learned. The way they solved their problem was by taking drugs.”

© 1999 by The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington.