Cpt. Chris Ray: Local drug effort at crisis point
The 2006 session was a high point for our effort to snuff the menace of meth in Oregon. Legislation championed that session by Rob Bovett, former Lincoln County district attorney, resulted in virtual elimination of local meth labs.
Unfortunately, we are running the risk of seeing the 2017 session become the low point. And not just for our efforts to suppress meth, but also Oxycontin, heroin and synthetic painkillers being designed and produced in Asia.
It takes dedicated money and manpower to keep the pressure on. But the governor’s budget doesn’t provide it, so those of us who have dedicated our lives to law enforcement find ourselves dependent on legislative reversal.
Effective drug interdiction requires Oregon State Police involvement, but the draft budget eliminates it’s funding. An OSP pullout would effectively eliminate interagency drug teams in counties across the state, including Yamhill.
So, what brought us to this point?
The Legislature’s landmark 2006 measure was based on a very simple concept: Eliminate the ability to illicitly obtain pseudoephedrine, the precursor for methamphetamine, and you eliminate the ability to produce the drug at the local level. Overnight, it made Oregon an example for other states, many of which began to implement similar statutes.
For those of us tasked with investigating, identifying and dismantling meth labs, the news could not have been more welcome. My unit, the Yamhill County Interagency Narcotics Team, known as YCINT, had long seen the first-hand the damage resulting from child exposure to active labs and the waste chemical dumping in rural areas.
We were, therefore, caught a bit by surprise when the supply soon rebounded. After a quick spike in price, due to reduced availability, the Mexican cartels seized the opportunity to fill the void left by now-defunct local labs. Prices soon dropped from around $1,500 per ounce to about $800 per ounce and began to stabilize there.
Fast forward to 2010, when things really started to go south.
As I began my second stint with YCINT, this time as supervisor, Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the opiate pain reliever OxyContin, introduced a new formula. The intent was admirable — reformulating the oft-abused opioid painkiller to place it on a time-release basis.
Opiate addicts don’t like time-release formulations. They prefer the full hit all at once, whether by smoking, snorting or injecting. And the new formula made that nearly impossible.
Unfortunately, there were two unintended results.
First, prices for the original formulation of OxyContin, and generic equivalents, went through the roof. Standard 80-milligram pills were soon selling for as much as a dollar a “point” — $80 all told.
The second consequence proved even more of a deal breaker. Many Oxy addicts turned to a cheaper alternative, heroin.
Heroin had previously been associated almost exclusively with inner cities, even by law enforcement officers. We didn’t encounter it very often around these parts, and when we did, we typically found it in the possession of someone traveling from a metro area. In a way, it was almost exotic, sparking conversation in the briefing room when an officer managed to seize some.
Then heroin began turning up locally with increasing frequency. Examining the phenomenon, we learned there had been something of a hidden opioid network functioning right under our noses.
Treating pain stemming from high school football injuries, wisdom teeth extractions and car crash injuries were producing opiate dependency. And many people addicted to prescription painkillers ultimately turned to heroin, as it was becoming widely available on the street at a more attractive price point.
We found opioid addiction had crossed socioeconomic barriers rarely crossed with methamphetamine. This included, and continues to include, a large population of teens. Many addicts I have interviewed over the years pointed to narcotic painkillers as their gateway to heroin addiction.
What people don’t often realize is that opiate abuse can continue for years without being detected, even by close associates. As long as the user is getting a regular dose sufficient to support the habit, he or she can function quite normally.
However, as physical tolerance to the drug increases, so does the financial burden of supporting the addiction. The drug begins to take its toll on the body as well. It’s at this point that friends and relatives often discover something isn’t right.
Make no mistake: Opiate addicts will do things they would never imagine themselves doing to avoid the physical sickness that accompanies addiction. This includes lying to and stealing from loved ones from their inner circle.
Meanwhile, the price of meth, which has to compete with heroin in the marketplace, has plummeted to $500 an ounce. So the scourge of meth shows no sign of retreating anytime soon.
What’s more, designer drugs produced in laboratories in China are becoming more and more widely available over the internet. Newer, more powerful synthetic opiates have the potential to threaten our communities. They have already resulted in overdose deaths in the U.S.
I’m a captain with the Yamhill County Sheriff’s Office. I’ve spent the majority of my career enforcing controlled-substance laws.
I’ve tried to do that to the best of my ability, but also with compassion and empathy for those adversely affected by illicit drugs. Often this includes the dealer himself, who turns to dealing in a desperate attempt to keep pace with his own growing habit.
Drug abuse is the catalyst for person and property crimes that affect even those lucky enough to not have succumbed to the grip of addiction or had a close friend or relative do so. Virtually no one is immune.
While I have primarily been associated with the enforcement end, I am fully aware that treatment needs to be one of the priorities in this battle as well. After all, you can’t simply lock away all dealers and users forever.
According to the latest Oregon HIDTA Threat Assessments, Yamhill County has experienced the state’s second highest increase in heroin use — an eye-popping 788 percent; Oregon ranks second among the 50 states for non-medical use of painkilling drugs within the last year; and methamphetamine-related arrests doubled between 2009 and 2015.
Over the last two months, YCINT has seized more than three pounds of methamphetamine and arrested eight traffickers on state or federal felony charges. This requires investment in specialized, complex and time-consuming investigations, which cannot be handled by patrol officers.
But this vital area is coming under threat at the very time it is most needed.
YCINT, which encompasses detectives from the Yamhill County Sheriff’s Office, the McMinnville Police Department and the Oregon State Police, is functioning at the very threshold of what funding allows. Gov. Kate Brown’s proposed state budget for the 2017-19 biennium threatens to eliminate the OSP component, effectively dismantling the local team and others like it all around the state.
We continue to be dedicated to this struggle, fully aware that drug trafficking cannot go unchecked.
I encourage citizens of this county to contact their elected representatives at all levels, city, county and state, to express their concern. The livability and financial implications are too great not to support effective drug enforcement in Yamhill County.