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Billings Gazette - "McGrath Warns of Loss of Federal Drug-Fighting Money"

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Location: Helena, MT

Billings Gazette - "McGrath Warns of Loss of Federal Drug-Fighting Money"

Montana's efforts to combat illegal drug trafficking could be crippled by a planned reduction in federal aid that is used to help finance eight state or regional drug task forces, Attorney General Mike McGrath said Monday.

He asked a subcommittee working on budgets for the Justice Department and Board of Crime Control to approve his request to replace the $1.13 million in federal money annually that will be lost after July 1.

"I'm very concerned that this will severely jeopardize our ability to do drug enforcement in a coordinated fashion," McGrath said.

The board received $2.4 million from the federal government in the current budget year and distributed $2.1 million of that to a statewide drug task force and seven regional ones. But congressional action last month means the state can expect to received $1.3 million for the coming year, or 57 percent of the existing amount.

Unless the Legislature replaces the money, McGrath said, the board will have to decide how to divide up a much smaller pot of money. The result could be no money for some of the task forces and that could damage the state's ability to maintain a widespread drug enforcement network, he said.

"You can't do drug enforcement part time," McGrath said. "You can't do it in isolation. They (traffickers) move from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. You need cooperation with numerous agencies and building informants and working undercover."

Gallatin County Sheriff Jim Cashell said Montana has to stop relying on uncertain sources of money for its premier drug-fighting efforts.

"We really ought to start funding these things with hard money" from the state that can be relied upon year after year, he said.

Local governments that are partners in the regional drug task forces already put up about a fourth of money for the operations, and cannot afford to fill the gap created by the federal funding loss, Cashell added.

In Gallatin County, available funding cannot keep up with the rapid population growth that has reached 34 percent over the past eight or nine years, he said. Without replacement of federal money, the Missouri River Drug Task Force that covers the Bozeman area would have only enough money to operate half a year, Cashell said.

McGrath said the state has used federal money for the task forces for at least a decade. The concept was encouraged by federal officials, he said.

He said the request for state funding was not part of the budget submitted to the Legislature, but news of the federal spending cut came too late.

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