Crystal fear: Drop in meth prices concerns law enforcement

PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER TOMLINSON—Sgt. DaveOswalt, the manager of the Grand Junction Police Department crime lab, weighs methamphetamine. A federal grant will allow the department to restore a street crimes unit that, says a prosecutor, will target crimes committed by users who need money to buy the drug.

It’s a question answered hesitantly in Mesa County drug cop circles.

Why is it cheaper?

Methamphetamine — public enemy No. 1 for Grand Valley law enforcement and the focus of aggressive enforcement and attention by government entities — is available at prices not seen in three to five years. The cost of a dealer-quantity ounce of meth has hit lows some say were last known when law enforcement struck a major first blow in March 2006 with the arrests of a 30-plus-member drug ring.

In recent undercover investigations, officers have been asked to pay $1,400 to $1,600 for an ounce, while $1,800 to $2,200 was the relatively consistent rate stretching back approximately three years, according to Western Colorado Drug Task Force Sgt. Gary Marak.

“That means it’s here. It’s a concern,” Marak said. “The more we can keep it out, obviously, the better all our systems, such as prevention and rehab, can work.”

Marak and Chief Deputy Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein, the county’s top drug prosecutor, say it’s hard to pinpoint a singular cause.

“If the cartels are flooding the market, we can still keep the price up if we are able to keep it out of Mesa County,” Rubinstein said. “If we aren’t as effective, the price will go down.”

The Sinaloa drug cartel of Mexico, which is suspected of having operations in some 75 United States cities, is believed to be the most active in the Grand Valley, according to a Department of Justice report released in April 2010.

Other factors may be at play in the Grand Valley’s meth-price dip, officials said.

“Demand has to be in there, too,” Marak said. “If you have something, and you’re not getting rid of it, lowering the price is one thing to do.”

A return to the tweaker-driven, bullet-filled crime wave of late 2005 is not on the horizon, they say.

“In 2005, you had people who weren’t looking over their shoulders, and (they were) thinking they could do whatever they wanted to,” Rubinstein said. “Now, I think they know we are out there.”

While a steady decline in meth-related felony prosecutions over recent years may point to decreased use of the drug, law enforcement’s ability to tackle meth at the user level also had setbacks, the prosecutor said.

Formed in January 2007, the Grand Junction Police Department’s street crimes unit was disbanded in August 2010 because of staff shortages elsewhere in the department. The department in September announced a nearly $1 million federal grant will allow the unit, which specializes in busting street-level drug dealing, to form again early next year.

“They’re targeting at the user level, the ones who when they run out of money start breaking into cars, forging checks,” Rubinstein said.

Changes to law also altered police tactics, the prosecutor said. A 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision placed new restrictions on law enforcement’s ability to search vehicles incident to the arrest of suspects. This, combined with Colorado’s new consent-to-search statute in 2010, told officers they have to first advise suspects about their right to refuse searches of vehicles.

“Part of our mechanism to target users and get them into treatment no longer captures those people,” Rubinstein said.


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