Task forces take on drugs
From all corners of Hubbard County task forces are sounding a drumbeat: Drug dealers, get out of Dodge.
Last Tuesday the Park Rapids City Council approved the city's re-entry into the West Central Drug Task Force. Last month the Hubbard County Sheriff's Department joined the same group.
The Paul Bunyan Drug Task Force out of Bemidji has covered the northern part of the county on and off.
Thursday, the county's Drug and Alcohol Task Force, armed with what it hopes will be a $1 million grant for five years, declared war on prescription pills, inhalants, energy drinks, bath salts, salvia and other forms of synthetic marijuana, along with underage drinking.
That group hopes to combat the drug problem through intervention and prevention as a community health issue.
The West Central Task Force is a group that Police Chief Terry Eilers was instrumental in forming in 1979 as then sheriff of Douglas County.
The fledgling four-county group has now grown to 19 entities covering eight counties, Eilers said.
Park Rapids will contribute $1,000 in 2011 from its drug forfeiture fund to the Task Force. The group is mainly funded through grants, Eilers told the council. No mandatory dues are charged, but Eilers requested the funds to assist the group overall.
Eilers said the city would receive drug enforcement resources of equipment and manpower it cannot otherwise afford. The county contributed $1,500 from a similar fund. Forfeiture funds must be earmarked for prevention and enforcement, County Attorney Don Dearstyne said.
Both the city and county would like to have an officer on the force or even share an officer, but both are struggling with budgetary constraints.
County Attorney Don Dearstyne said he, too, would like to see a local officer join the force, especially because neither the city nor county can assign their existing investigators to the lengthy probes drug cases usually entail.
Eilers said the region is in a crossroad between major metropolitan areas, and with the highways running in all directions, the potential to move drugs through and into the region is there.
Meanwhile the Drug and Alcohol Task Force underscored those concerns at its meeting Thursday.
Prescription drug abuse is reaching epic proportions, reinforcing the need to publicize the county's new disposal program, said chemical health coordinator Sara Bowles.
A "Take it to the Box" campaign was launched to get unused prescription and over-the-counter medications out of the reach of youth. A drop box was placed in the entry of the Hubbard County Law Enforcement Building at the time.
"Lots of doctor shopping is going on" to get such pills, Bowles said, but awareness is growing as well.
"It's a big problem here," acknowledged Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes.
The group discussed a wide variety of strategies, including mentoring programs, a diversion program to get first-time offenders out of the court system and into treatment and implementing more drug prevention emphasis at the grade-school level.
Expanding the diversion program, which sends a youthful defendant and a parent to drug counseling, not court, is something Dearstyne would like to see revived.
"It's a real eye opener for some of these parents to learn what their kids are doing," he said. The four-hour classes are therapeutic and teach kids life skills in a proactive way that will help them make good choices, he said.
A community readiness survey, one-on-one interviews, prevention curriculum for middle school students and changes in legislation are needed, the group agreed. Right now a teenager working at a convenience store can sell cigarettes, Bowles pointed out, potentially to friends.
The city's re-entry into the Task Force follows a four-month hiatus in which a Joint Powers Agreement with West Central was being evaluated.
"Our drugs didn't go away just because we didn't have a task force," Dearstyne said.
But he said officers are making arrests out on the streets patrolling. Many are incidental to arrests for other crimes, he noted.
Task Force data shows a Heinz variety of drugs seized in 2010 throughout the region, including marijuana, meth, cocaine and the types of drugs only available by prescription.
Those are the drugs the task force is trying to eliminate through the disposal program.
The Hubbard County Youth Drug and Alcohol Task Force meets monthly. If it is awarded the grant, it will begin implementing many of the ideas suggested.
The ultimate goal is a many faceted one, using drug agents to make arrests, education and intervention to head off substance abuse problems and community support to catch those who may fall through the cracks.
"We're working under the premise we're getting the grant," Bowles said.
"Hopefully we'll get the agreement re-signed and back in business real quick," Eilers said of the drug investigations.
The overall hope is that prevention. intervention and apprehension will send drug dealers packing.