Cantwell, Law Enforcement Target Meth Epidemic and Tide of Gangs Crossing Border
Senator calls for U.S. Attorney General investigation into possible link between increasing gang activity and meth trafficking
Thursday at Vancouver Police Headquarters, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) called on U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to launch a formal investigation into possible connections between gangs and meth trafficking. Cantwell made the announcement at a community meeting she convened with Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas, Vancouver Police Chief Mitch Barker, local drug task force members, community leaders, educators, and health officials to hear firsthand about recent gang activity and possible ties to Washington's ongoing meth epidemic.
"With help from programs like Meth Hot Spots, our state has succeeded in reducing the number of local meth labs, but now we're seeing more gang activity and more meth abuse," said Cantwell. "We need to look at the possibility that gangs may be involved in bringing meth across our borders and into our communities. With the president proposing budget cuts to the very programs that support law enforcement in this fight, I'm calling on the U.S. Attorney General to investigate the link between gangs and meth trafficking and help us tackle this potential threat. We need to stand by our local law enforcement, and that means delivering the resources and tools to help them keep criminal gang members behind bars, reduce violent crime, and stop meth at the source."
In a letter sent Thursday, Cantwell asked U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to investigate the possible links between gang activity, violent crime, and methamphetamine.
"Many communities throughout Washington state are experiencing an increase in criminal gang activity that seems correlated with ongoing problems with methamphetamine distribution and in some cases, the release of previous generations of gang members from prison," Cantwell wrote. "The federal government needs to study the problem and understand its scope so that federal, state, and local law enforcement can develop effective strategies that maximize inter-jurisdictional coordination and resources to combat the subsequent problems and links identified."
While the number of statewide meth lab seizures is down from 1,456 in 2001 to as few as 503 in 2005, meth abuse continues to rise, with as much as 75 percent of all meth now coming from out-of-state sources, including gangs. According to Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart, meth use costs the county an average of $360 annually per resident, with the county paying as much as $150,000 for the incarceration and rehab costs of each meth arrest. According to Clark County Sheriff Gary Lucas, 80 percent of all crime in the county bears some relation to meth abuse.
At Thursday's meeting, Cantwell also looked at how to stem the tide of Portland gangs crossing to Washington to deal drugs, and discussed federal initiatives to help local law enforcement combat gangs and meth trafficking. The president's most recent budget proposal undercuts federal support for local law enforcement. Cantwell is working to reverse these cuts, toughen anti-gang laws, boost anti-meth initiatives, and deliver better tools to first responders.
At a time when communities nationwide need more resources to confront this problem, the president's budget proposal for fiscal year 2008 undercuts federal initiatives that deliver vital recourses to local law enforcement. These initiatives include the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, which faces $509 million in cutsan amount equivalent to 94 percent of the program's entire budgetand the Byrne/JAG and Meth Hot Spots programs, both of which receive no specific funding under the president's proposal.
The COPS program provides state and local law enforcement agencies with grants to hire additional community police officers and purchase new crime-fighting technology. Cantwell is working to reverse the president's proposed cuts, and joined Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) last month in introducing bipartisan legislation to reinvigorate the program, improve the grants process, and authorize a total of $1.15 billion for COPS. Since the program's creation in 1994, Washington has received more than $192 million in COPS grants, allowing law enforcement agencies to hire more that 1,900 additional officers and purchase $22 million in new technology.
In January, Cantwell also joined Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in introducing bipartisan legislation to combat violent gangs, reduce gang-related crime, and cut gang membership. The Gang Abatement and Prevention Act would establish new criminal gang offenses, strengthen punishments for existing crimes, identify and assist areas especially prone to gang violence, target at-risk youth for gang prevention initiatives, and improve the coordination of anti-gang efforts. The legislation would also provide more than $1 billion for anti-gang initiatives, and contains several provisions specifically related to drug trafficking by gangs.
Since taking office, Cantwell has worked tirelessly to promote meth awareness initiatives, increase funding for anti-meth programs, and move meth ingredients behind pharmacy counters. Last year, Cantwell worked with her colleagues to include the Combat Meth Act and other anti-meth measures in legislation to re-authorize the Patriot Act. The Combat Meth Act restricts the sale of products used to produce meth, provides funds to help those affected by meth use, and gives new tools to states, law enforcement, and prosecutors working to combat meth. Cantwell has worked to curb meth trafficking across the U.S.-Canada border, and plans to reintroduce her legislation to investigate the link between meth crimes and other criminal activity such as identity theft. Last year, she also joined Representative Brian Baird (D-WA) to create a National Meth Awareness Day, observed in November, and backed new legislation, signed into law in September, authorizing $40 million annually to help children affected by meth.
[The text of Cantwell's letter to Attorney General Gonzales follows below]
February 22, 2007
Attorney General Gonzales U.S. Department of Justice 950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, D.C. 20530-0001
Dear Attorney General Gonzales:
I am writing to urge you to undertake an investigation of the possible links between gang activity, violent crime, and methamphetamine.
Many communities throughout Washington state are experiencing an increase in criminal gang activity that seems correlated with ongoing problems with methamphetamine distribution and in some cases, the release of previous generations of gang members from prison. While the direct connection needs further study, the volume of concerns about gang-related violent crimes and anecdotal evidence of a linkage with increased meth trafficking around the state continues to rise.
The federal government needs to study the problem and understand its scope so that federal, state, and local law enforcement can develop effective strategies that maximize inter-jurisdictional coordination and resources to combat the subsequent problems and links identified.
Statistics now show local meth lab production is declining across Washington state, but meth abuse continues to rise. We've had an effective strategy to combat local labsand we're seeing the results. But now we hear from law enforcement around the state that there is a recurring coincidence of gang violence and an increase in volume of meth in our communities. It appears that gangs may be the new front in the war on meth in the West.
For example, law enforcement, community leaders and health care experts in Snohomish County, Washington have provided disturbing reports that biker and street gangs have developed business relationships. The bikers transport the meth and other drugs while the street gangs handle retail distribution. The National Drug Intelligence Center estimates that in the Northwest, gangs are involved in the following percentages of narcotics distribution: meth75 percent, marijuana62 percent, coke59 percent, crack55 percent, other crimes 24 percent.
While Snohomish County's gang population is growing, it is still small enough that with good funding and programs, we could get control of the problem. The county sheriff is only able to dedicate two deputies to the gang fight. Other local police forces have individuals who are involved as well, but it is not a full time unit.
I believe we need more data to help state and local law enforcement get the resources to combat meth, fight gangs, and reduce violent crime. That's why I again urge the Justice Department to formally investigate the possibility of connections between gangs and the international, interstate, and local trafficking of meth and other drugs.
Last year Washington was seventh in the nation when it came to the number of meth sites. While that is an improvement from years past, due largely to successful effort to reduce in-state labs, much more product is now entering our state from large scale labs based in Mexico.
Regional Drug Task Forces in Washington state have already demonstrated their ability to seriously impact the local meth problem. They have devastated the local labs, and are fully enforcing and investigating under the new precursor laws. For example, the Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force is following up on pseudophredrine sales and they have had tremendous success shutting down lab operations, and scaring off or catching meth producers. The number of labs in Snohomish County went from 43 in 2005, to 14 in 2006a 67 percent decrease. In the first half of the 2006, almost half of pseudophredrine sales were considered suspicious. Since then, sales are down 50 percent and under 2 percent of those sales are labeled as suspicious.
Snohomish County's results are clear evidence that when state and local law enforcement are given the tools they need to combat problems in their communities, they succeed. Federal interests in the fight against meth are greatly served by adequately funding effective community-based crime prevention programs.
The connections between violent crime and meth abuse are well documented. According to the Sheriff of Clark County, 80 percent of all crime in the county is related in some way to meth abusefrom burglaries to domestic violence to ID theft to child abuse. Clark County has estimated that a handful of repeat offenders and addicts cost every county resident about $360 annually. With incarceration, charges, and rehab costs averaging $150,000 for every meth arrest, it's obvious we can save a lot of money for local communities by stepping up and working to stop the problem early.
That's why I was disappointed the President's fiscal year 2008 budget request proposed deep cuts for local law enforcement programs including the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), Meth Hot Spots, and Byrne/JAG grants. These three programs alone have been tremendous assets in my state's fight against the current meth epidemic and previous widespread gang activity. Specifically, the president's budget would cut $509 millionnearly 94 percentfrom the COPS program and eliminate its hiring program. Additionally, his budget proposal had no specific funding for the Meth Hot Spots program or for Byrne/JAG grants. The Meth Hot Spots program has directly helped Washington's state and local law enforcement in undertaking anti-meth initiatives. It provides the opportunity for agencies to target specific anti-meth needs within their jurisdictions, including meth lab cleanup efforts, equipment purchases, and police training programs. That's why I plan to work with my Congressional colleagues to make sure that funding for these important programs is restored.
Meth was the number one drug problem in the U.S. in 2006 according to the National Association of Counties. Meth-related crimes continue to grow and may now be supporting a growth in gang activity. I look forward to the results of any Justice Department investigation into the links between violent crimes, gangs and meth and any recommendations on what we can do to best tackle this troubling issue. We need to get ahead of this problem before it gets out of control so that we can get help to those in need, reduce violent crimes, stop gangs in their tracks, and keep meth out of our communities.
Maria Cantwell United States Senator