(Photo by Scott Welton, Staff)
SIKESTON -- U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson assured local law enforcement officials that funding for drug task forces will not be "zeroed out" of the federal budget.
Members of the Southeast Missouri Drug Task Force met with Emerson during a luncheon Monday at the Clinton Building in Sikeston to discuss the funding and the state's ongoing problem with methamphetamine.
The proliferation of methamphetamine and Missouri's place at the top of the list for the number of meth labs "is, to me, the most critical issue," Emerson said.
Emerson credited the SEMO Drug Task Force with being successful in eradicating many meth labs "but for whatever reason people still want that terrible drug."
Regarding President Bush's proposal to cut Byrne grants, which provide funding for drug task forces, Emerson said: "I can assure you that those will not be zeroed out in our budget. ... There isn't any one of my colleagues who doesn't believe that this is an excellent program that makes a huge difference in enabling you all to do your work."
Emerson added, "We have put in individual congressionally sponsored requests ... for each of our drug task forces to get the monies that we have traditionally asked for you out of the Justice Department and (Department of Homeland Security)."
Kevin Glaser, SEMO Drug Task Force supervisor, said earmark appropriations in the past for the drug task force "have been absolutely critical in our continued effort."
The SEMO Drug Task Force has typically received $237,000 of its $600,000 budget from the Byrne grants, according to Glaser.
Keeping the Byrne grants going along with earmark funding "keeps us really combating the problem at the level that we are. ... That's our life line. Unfortunately there's not any state funding mechanisms really in place to take over if we lose those. ... There is no better concept than the multijurisdictional drug task force."
Losing this funding would be "a devastating blow to fighting the drug problem all across the country," he added.
As part of an overview of this local drug problem, John Jordan, Cape Girardeau County sheriff, explained why this state is the No. 1 in the number of meth labs.
"Missouri's problem has long been a user-driven problem and that's why we have the 'mom and pop' labs and that's why we had so many of them to deal with," Jordan said.
Cleaning up meth lab sites requires a lot of resources, Jordan said, and without federal funding, "the resources are just not there to clean them up."
While federal earmarks "have become a dirty word politically," Jordan said, drug task force earmarks are "going to a good cause" and are "paramount" to keeping law enforcement on the front line fighting meth and meth production.
"We focus on trying to get warm bodies in the field," he said. "It's very manpower intensive to dismantle a lab and make sure it's properly taken down, properly disposed of."
Glaser said the "bunker system" facilities they have in place at Kennett, Poplar Bluff and Jackson to dispose of meth labs has lowered the cost for lab cleanups from as high as $3,000 to just a couple hundred dollars. This in turn enables the drug task force to put more people in the field.
Asked about the number of meth users, Glaser said, "I don't think we're seeing any decrease."
Glaser discussed how putting pseudoephedrine behind the counter has reduced the number of meth labs but has lead to more "smurfing" which he explained is where someone will go to several different places to purchase the maximum legal amount of the meth ingredient.
Proposed legislation in Missouri would establish a database for pharmacies to help combat this loophole, Glaser explained. "It's a big-ticket item," he said.
Emerson asked if this could be accomplished with a "tweak" to existing databases.
"I think what we need to do is get the pharmacies to talk to one another," Glaser said.
Other topics discussed included "smurfing" for chemicals across state lines; a more expensive type of meth called "ice"; and an increase in the importation of methamphetamine from California and Mexico following the decrease in local labs from putting pseudoephedrine behind the counter.
"The drug is so addictive once people start it and it's a terribly hard drug to get off of," Glaser said. "They get hooked on it and they don't want that kind of life but they can't get away from it."
Glaser said Missouri's meth producers typically produce enough for their addiction plus a little extra to sell to recoup their production costs. "They keep them small but it's on a continual basis because they can do it so quick," he said.
The meth problem in Missouri doesn't really have kingpins to go after, Glaser said. "It's really just a whole lot of individuals that are involved in it," he said.
"It would be easier to target if there was a kingpin," Jordan said.
Also discussed during the meeting as the escalating problem of prescription drug abuse, often in conjunction with meth use.
Capt. Mark Crocker of the Sikeston Department of Public Safety said prescription drugs are what they are finding students bringing to school now instead of drugs like marijuana or cocaine.
"It's hard to get judges to take prescription drugs seriously," said one undercover law enforcement agent.
Emerson first suggested drug task force funding is something to work on at the federal level but that the pharmacy database is something that could be addressed at the state level.
Crocker said the pharmacy database also needs federal support "because in southeast Missouri in 20 minutes you are in Illinois, Kentucky, Arkansas."
"We will continue to fight hard to make sure that we can get you the resources and the tools that you need to do your job," Emerson said in closing.