Fighting the good fight: Officials work to stem drug activity

A continuous stream of drug-related crimes keeps law enforcement scrambling to combat the different types of threats in Northeast Mississippi communities.
“More than half of our cases involve drugs,” said Alcorn County Sheriff Charles Rinehart. “In our last grand jury we presented 100 cases, and 70 of those were drug-related. It might be a burglary, but when you trace it back it was usually to get money to buy drugs.”
Rinehart said the snapshot for Alcorn County is no different from other counties around the state, estimating that his departmet usually handles 60-65 percent drug-related cases.
Lawmakers have willingly backed up the efforts of law enforcers by passing new anti-drug laws as the face of illegal drug use changes.
However, an important tool agencies need to unearth and remove drug activity – money – has become more difficult to come by.
Justice assistance grants to states and through them to local law enforcement agencies have dropped steadily year after year, said Capt. Marvis Bostick of the Tupelo Police Department, who heads the North Mississippi Narcotics Unit.
“Our budget was cut 20 percent this fiscal year,” Bostick said. “In past years we were told grant money would be less and less as the national focus has moved away from drug enforcement to terrorism, and we’re expected to eventually fund our projects ourselves.”
Part of the self-funding for agencies comes through seizures of drugs and property during drug arrests, usually vehicles, currency and weapons.
“We can seize the item if it has something to do with a drug transaction,” Bostick said. “In rare instances it can be a house or bank account.”
Despite declining funding, the area’s drug enforcement agencies press on with their mission.
While Alcorn County narcotics officers report a decrease in methamphetamine cases since the measure commonly called the Sudafed law took effect last year, they’ve seen a sharp rise in prescription drug cases.
“People are selling their prescription pills, there’s so much money to be made in it,” said Alcorn Investigator Darrell Hopkins. “It’s hard to work other cases for covering pill cases.”
The hunt for active meth labs has usually taken law enforcement officers into rural areas.
Many isolated and abandoned buildings make it more difficult to find the sites, Hopkins said.
“We made about 200 cases in 2010 with information from the public and our relationships with city narcotics officers and across county and state lines,” Hopkins said. “One of the big gaps is if there is no cooperation between agencies.”
Prentiss County joins Lee, Itawamba, Monroe, Pontotoc and Tishomingo counties in the North Mississippi Narcotics Unit in a cooperative effort to fight drug activity.
Cases of methamphetamine manufacture have gone down in Mississippi since last year. However, law enforcement officials see meth manufacturers crossing state lines to buy their ingredients.
“They’re harder to catch now, going to Alabama and Tennessee and being more sneaky,” Bostick said.
Another wrinkle is the change in how the drug is made.
“Before 2005, there were certain people who knew how to make meth, and they’d have 10 or 15 people who went around to the stores buying the Sudafed pills,” Bostick said. “When the law changed that required them to sign to buy pseudoephedrine, they figured out the shake-and-bake method.”
The one-pot meth-making process – shake-and-bake – is easier and requires fewer ingredients, but is considered potentially more explosive. A container like a two-liter soda or water bottle, some cold pills and a few other chemicals are all the components needed to quickly make a small quantity of meth.
“They didn’t have to get as much Sudafed, only one or two boxes of pills, a couple of bottles, tubing and they started mixing,” Bostick said. “They could make small amounts in extremely mobile labs.”
More patrol officers on the street make a big difference, as do special operations groups using more aggressive tactics, Bostick said.
“Crack cocaine trafficking in Tupelo has remained steady since it hit in the early 1990s,” Bostick said. “It got so bad that people who lived on North Green Street and Tolbert couldn’t come outside safely for the large number of people hanging out there all the time.”
The scene was one of theft, fighting and other violent behavior as turf battles raged.
“The street interdiction teams have made a huge difference,” Bostick said. “Today you can walk in that area and others like it, and they’re under control.”
A key source of information that each of the law enforcement agencies emphasizes is reporting from people in a community or neighborhood.
“Neighbors, elderly people may be the first to notice something out of the ordinary,” said Alcorn Investigator Michael Martin.
Prentiss County uses a Narcotics Intelligence Report to collect information from such callers. Sheriff Randy Tolar said several of those reports together can help tremendously in obtaining search warrants when there is suspected drug manufacturing or drug sales activity.
Drug manufacturers and drug users are always changing their methods as they try to outwit law enforcement, so law enforcement must constantly make changes as well.
“In drug enforcement we have to find little ways to tailor our work to deal with the problem,” Bostick said.
“We know there are still going to be drug manufacturers, drug users, but drug enforcement is a part of law enforcement. Our main goal is to make the public feel safe in their daily life.”
Contact Lena Mitchell at (662) 287-9822 or lena.mitchell@journalinc.com.

Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal Corinth Bureau