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Keeping up with the local drug culture

Posted: Tuesday, Sep 25th, 2012

Cottage Grove police officers have long battled the use and trafficking of marijuana and methamphetamine here. But these days, it’s becoming more apparent that there’s also another game in town.

“We still have a lot of marijuana and methamphetamine use, but lately we’re also seeing a rise in heroin use,” said CGPD Commander Scott Shepherd, a 19-year veteran of the force. “It’s pretty telling when we’re making freeway stops and coming up with over three pounds of heroin. It’s common knowledge that Interstate 5 is a vessel for every kind of illegal narcotic—from pills to heroin to meth.”

Meth and marijuana are still viewed as greatest threats

The proximity of I-5—and the potential dangers that come with it—are part of the day-to-day struggle of communities like Cottage Grove that are involved with Oregon’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Program, which recently released its 2013 counter-drug strategy and threat assessment. The report confirms that meth and marijuana remain the state’s highest illicit drug threat.

Still, Shepherd said that the department has begun to see evidence of local heroin users traveling to Springfield or Portland to get their drugs.

“A group of users will often pool their money together to get the biggest quantity for the least amount of money,” he said. “They often go to other cities to buy whatever they can and bring it back to Cottage Grove to sell.”

Shepherd said he saw his first heroin during police activities in 1997. Now, he said, more and more evidence points to heroin use among young adults ages 18-24.

“I don’t think Cottage Grove is often a destination spot for drugs on I-5,” he said. “But people with connections will often bring them here to sell them.”

Different drug, different outcome

Shepherd and Police Chief Mike Grover say different outcomes are possible for users of methamphetamine, marijuana and heroin, though they add that drug and alcohol abuse are involved with a majority of local crimes.

“There’s been a drug or alcohol abuse correlation with crime that has held up for at least as long as I’ve been a cop,” Shepherd said, “but there’s a different culture for different users. You don’t often see marijuana users going out to steal pop cans to buy more marijuana. But many meth users will steal whatever they can to trade or sell for the drug. Which doesn’t make marijuana any less illegal. It’s just a lot more prevalent with the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program.”

Medical has other uses

Shepherd said the Police Department believes many cardholders with the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program—who are allowed to grow and possess a certain amount of the drug for themselves or others but not charge for it—often circumvent the rules of the program for their own gain.

“A large percentage of medical growers also sell,” Shepherd said. “If they don’t sell it directly, they’re trading it for other products. There’s a lot of pot around.”

Shepherd said medical marijuana is referenced openly and often trafficked through local Craigslist ads.

“I just searched OMMP, and I got 82 hits,” he said. “I don’t know if this kind of activity was supposed to be a part of the spirit of the program.”

Shepherd said that, provided medical card holders have the appropriate documentation and attempt to follow the rules, they are safe from police action.

“If they have the card and are under the acceptable limits, we send them on their way,” he said.

Shepherd said the OMMP does not police itself, adding that even small infractions of its rules often go unpunished because of the cost and hassle associated with prosecuting such offenders.

“If it’s close and you’ve got a card, we’re not going to mess with you,” he said. “We heard about a case where a guy got caught with marijuana, but it turned out he had applied for a medical marijuana card. Even though he had only applied for the card, the judge wouldn’t do anything about it.”

Meth labs down, use still prevalent

Law enforcement officials interviewed by HIDTA say the state of Oregon’s move to make the precursors of methamphetamine —most notably the ephedrine found in cold and allergy pills—more difficult to come by has definitely decreased the number of meth labs in operation here. But they add that drug cartels in Mexico have picked up the slack by sending huge amounts of the drug north across the border.

“There are less labs around,” Shepherd said. “But it’s a question of supply and demand with all the meth coming up from Mexico. A typical user wouldn’t be saving money by trying to come up with all the ingredients to make meth here. But if they can buy from somebody else, it’s much better than trying to cook it yourself. The cartels take into account the fact that a certain amount of the drugs are not going to get to their destination. But they play a numbers game knowing that one car can get stopped and not get through, but the cars that do get through mean they still make money.”

Drugs at school

Drug use by area youth may lead to use on school property, but school officials say drugs haven’t been a major problem at local schools in recent years.

“We have done a lot in the school setting to get drug use turned around,” said South Lane Superintendent Krista Parent. Parent said the District has twice employed undercover cops disguised as students for long periods of time.

“The first time we did it, there was quite a bit of illegal activity,” she said. “The second time, there was hardly any. We’ve brought a drug-sniffing dog into Cottage Grove High School, and we’re getting ready to do it again. We know drug use goes on outside the school, but the message that we’re trying to get across is that there will be zero tolerance for it here.”

Parent said drug use and violence were much more common in the district in the early 90s, though such activities are rare now.

“People think you must have your head in the sand, but I can say with confidence that it does not happen on our campus,” she said. “We know of kids that have significant substance abuse issues, but it manifests itself in other ways.”

Parent said young drug users often fail to make it to class, adding that poor attendance is a problem with at least 25 percent of the student body at CGHS.

Cottage Grove High School Principal Kay Graham said that students caught with illegal substances receive a three-day suspension and a drug threat assessment conducted in partnership with Looking Glass. She said continuous patterns of abuse warrant removal from the school, which has happened, but rarely.

“I’ve worked in a lot of schools, and drugs are a problem in all of them,” Graham said. “We’ll constantly be battling the threat, and it takes efforts on all fronts.”

Incoming Kennedy High School Principal Mike Ingman said he made his stance on drugs clear when assuming his position this school year.

“I let the kids know that, if a student breaks the law here, I will call Cottage Grove Police,” he said. “I believe the police department should be involved.”

Ingman said that at Kennedy, a school that has battled severe drug issues in the past, a student-led cultural shift away from drugs has impressed him.

“It’s been voiced to me by many students that they don’t feel drugs should be here,” he said. “I’m impressed with what they have told me about the way they want the culture to operate.”

Fighting back

Shepherd and Officer Ron Bates, who often conducts traffic stops on Interstate 5 in attempts to uncover drug activity there, say CGPD’s interdiction efforts on the highway have led to remarkable results. Bates said he will conduct multiple stops in a given period that do not lead to infractions, all in the hope that he will happen upon an automobile carrying something more serious.

“It’s a numbers game for us, too, just like the cartels,” he said. “We know that the more stops we make, the more chances we have to run across a drug shipment. It’s the ultimate cat-and-mouse game. They’re trying to get illegal substances through, and it’s my job to try and prevent them.”

Bates said his drug interdiction efforts amount to more than just a job.

“It’s about personal dedication and pride,” he said. “It’s not about whether we win the war; it’s about winning as many battles as you can. I may not win, but I’m going to try.”

The new guy

So far Bates has been making some pretty big hauls on I-5, most notably a recent seizure of the equivalent of 27 pounds of meth that had been combined with tequila. A recent stop also led to the seizure of three pounds of heroin, and the stop of a transfer van in April led to the discovery of over eight pounds of meth in the luggage of one of its passengers. To find all that illegal activity, CGPD and Bates employ a now not-so-secret weapon, a black Labrador retriever named Bo whose ability to detect drug odors Bates described as “phenomenal.”

“He has detected marijuana scent on jackets at Cottage Grove High School, Bates said. “We didn’t find anything in the jacket, but the kid later admitted to having smoked while wearing the jacket the night before. Last August, we seized three pounds of marijuana vacuum-sealed in plastic and then dunked in paint buckets. You can’t hide anything from this dog.”

Bates said a drug-sniffing dog must showcase at least 60 percent accuracy for his efforts to hold up in court. Bo, he said, has thus far shown over 90 percent accuracy, a fact Bates attributes to excellent discipline as a puppy and an amazing nose.

“It’s like if you were at a restaurant and somebody brought a pizza to you, you would smell an entire pizza,” Bates said. “Bo would be able to tell you what kind of flour the baker used.”

County troubles trickle down

Shepherd said CGPD’s frustration over drug trafficking could easily be re-directed toward the situation at the Lane County Jail, where budget constraints mean that many non-violent offenders are not prosecuted. Shepherd said that accountability is lacking in the county’s criminal justice system, accountability he and his department attempt to provide for local offenders whenever possible.

“With any crimes above a Class A misdemeanor, we have to depend on Lane County to prosecute,” he said. “It’s difficult for the county to hold them and, later, difficult to get them to trial. And if there was a trial, the subject would probably fail to appear.”

Shepherd said CGPD often charges suspects with lesser crimes to keep them in the municipal court system and subject them to time in the local jail.

“A small amount of meth is a Class C felony,” he said. “If arrested for that, a person would go to the county jail, but likely not held. We will charge that person with attempted possession, a misdemeanor, so that we can at least attempt to hold that person accountable. The reason we deal with most of the people we deal with over and over is that they’ve never been held accountable.” photo by Jerry Thompson

Members of the Watershed Council and concerned citizens embark to clean up the Coast Fork River near Cloverdale.

For the complete article see the 09-26-2012 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 09-26-2012 paper.

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