Decreased meth abuse lowers crime rate
It was methamphetamine that brought James Finnegan and Sam Lincoln together Nov. 23, 2005, when the two were part of a group of people smoking the drug that morning.
It was meth that blew them apart just hours later when Lincoln, believing Finnegan had ratted out a drug dealer wanted for shooting and killing another man over a drug debt, drove the 20-year-old man out to the desert north of Grand Junction and shot him five times. Finnegan survived but was permanently disfigured.
The execution-style shooting touched off a massive manhunt that featured Lincoln attempting to gun down two Mesa County sheriff’s deputies before he was captured at a Glenwood Springs motel on Dec. 11.
Meth has held Mesa County in its addictive grip for the better part of this decade, compelling parents to abandon their children, children to steal from their parents and addicts to kill or maim other addicts. It has spawned legions of violent, paranoid, apathetic and neglectful users and dealers who flooded the criminal justice and social services systems.
But four years after the Lincoln case demonstrated the worst of the drug, there are indications that Mesa County is beginning to come down off its high.
The number of meth-related crimes committed in the county has dropped by nearly half since 2007. Federal and local law officers have banded together to more effectively crack down on the gamut of offenders, ranging from dismantling super labs in Mexico to nabbing tweakers on local streets. Addicts who are ordered into or voluntarily seek help at the Western Slope’s first meth treatment center are enjoying a high degree of success in weaning themselves off the drug.
“I am cautiously optimistic that the efforts we are making are causing the positive things we are seeing,” said Mesa County Chief Deputy District Attorney Dan Rubinstein, who leads the county’s drug prosecutions and is actively involved in local and state meth task forces. “We are seeing good things and should be pleased at what we are seeing.”
Felony filings for all offenses in Mesa County hit their peak in 2005, when prosecutors filed felony charges in 2,223 cases. But 2009, with a projected 1,825 cases, should mark the fourth consecutive year that felony filings have diminished, even as the county’s population continues to swell. Officials say that drop is directly tied to a decline in meth possession and distribution, which is frequently linked with burglaries and thefts.
Prosecutors are expected to file 268 meth cases this year, nearly 48 percent fewer than two years ago. The number of meth filings prior to 2007 aren’t known because the District Attorney’s Office didn’t track them.
One reason cases may be down is the multi-pronged approach law-enforcement agencies have taken to round up offenders. The Grand Junction police and Mesa County sheriff’s departments implemented street-crimes units to target meth distributors and users. A partnership forged earlier this decade between the local drug task force and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is resulting in busts yielding larger quantities of the drug. More agencies lending greater resources allows officers to conduct more complex investigations.
“I think it’s just teamwork,” said Lt. David Holdren of the Western Colorado Drug Task Force. “We don’t have 10 percent of the workers working 90 percent of the stuff.”
Rubinstein said the majority of dealers that authorities are arresting are part of a Mexican drug cartel funneling meth into Colorado. As federal agents make more inroads in Mexico, less of the drug ends up in the hands of mid-level dealers and low-level users in Mesa County.
Although most meth is produced south of the U.S. border, some is made here in homes, the desert and other clandestine locations in Mesa County. Those amounts are on the decline, as well.
Holdren said when he worked as an investigator with the drug task force a few years ago, authorities dismantled an average of 15 to 20 meth labs each year. Now, officers uncover only one or two so-called box labs, in which manufacturers limit chemicals to a box or cooler from which they can generate 1 or 2 grams at a time.
Authorities know they’re taking meth off the streets here because its price has shot up and held steady. Rubinstein said meth sold for $900 an ounce at the beginning of 2006. Two years later, it ballooned to $1,800 to $2,000 an ounce and has maintained that high price.
Prosecutors not only are filing fewer meth cases, but they’re also not seeing the same faces show up in court time and again.
“It wasn’t uncommon to have someone with four, five, six felony cases because we didn’t have anywhere to put them,” Rubinstein said. “Now we can get these people into treatment and get them to address their problem.”
That place is the Summit View treatment facility in lower downtown Grand Junction. Opened two years ago at a cost of $5 million, its 24 county-funded beds are filled to capacity most of the time, occupied by men for an average of 60 to 75 days. There is room — but not yet the funding — for an additional 24 beds.
Authorities generally operate on a dealer-to-prison, user-to-treatment philosophy, not only to save valuable prison bed space, but also to get addicts the help they want. But prosecutors and program managers don’t divert users to Summit View just because they’re hooked.
“The general question we ask from the DA’s side is: If you solve the drug (addiction) problem, do you solve the crime problem? If the answer is yes, then you don’t send them to prison,” Rubinstein said.
That approach seems to be working. Of the 65 clients who entered Summit View’s inpatient program in 2008, 54 successfully completed treatment, meaning they didn’t use again or walk away from the program, according to Dennis Berry, director of the county Criminal Justice Services Department, which operates Summit View. Berry expects a similar success rate this year, adding that most meth treatment centers in the U.S. enjoy only a 50 percent success rate.
Of those who graduated from the inpatient program, 36 percent relapsed within a year, according to Summit View Treatment Manager Jason Talley.
Berry said he and other administrators constantly review program curriculum to ensure it’s taught in a consistent manner and in line with the research upon which it’s based. They also meet regularly with Salvation Army and Colorado West Regional Mental Health officials who run their own treatment programs to refer clients to one another and ensure everyone is offering the appropriate services.
“There’s just a lot more cooperation than there was in the past,” he said.
There also are safety nets in place to help keep clients sober after emerging from treatment.
The Mesa County Methamphetamine Task Force this fall launched an adult mentoring program in which recovering addicts are matched up with adult volunteers.
“It gives them some positive support so they can continue the treatment process while being teamed up with someone in the community to help transition into being a productive community member,” said Jeff Haifley, a former Montrose police officer who became coordinator of the 3-year-old Meth Task Force in August.
Officials aren’t reaching everyone, though. While Summit View offers outpatient treatment to men and women alike, it doesn’t have an inpatient program for women with children. Berry said stakeholders are assessing the demand for treating mothers and what it would take to offer such a program.
Berry said women must be handled differently than men because the impetus to use is different. Women often become addicted because of physical or emotional abuse, he said.
And the primary reason they relapse is family-related stress, while men regress from work-related stress or peer pressure, according to Rubinstein.
“We can’t have the program we have now (for men) and stick women in it. It won’t work,” Berry said.
Having beefed up law enforcement and created a treatment center, authorities now are focused on trying to stop usage before it starts. And they believe the place where meth has the greatest risk of taking hold is in the homes of existing addicts or abusive adults.
That’s why the Meth Task Force and the county Department of Human Services are amplifying their relationship with School District 51, so officials can identify at-risk children and intervene.
“If teachers and counselors and other school workers spend more time in a day (with a child) than a parent does, if they’re spending all day with these kids, they’re going to get to know them fairly well,” Haifley said. “They may pick up on little clues in their behavior that parents may not be picking up on.”
In addition to targeting the young, Rubinstein believes pervasive media coverage and graphic television advertising campaigns by the Colorado Meth Project featuring scab-covered addicts have helped dissuade potential first-time users.
“The word is getting out that using meth won’t help you lose weight and look good. It will just make your teeth fall out and ruin your life,” he said.
While police, prosecutors and drug counselors are pleased with the progress they’re making against meth, they say the insidious drug remains a significant criminal and sociological problem. Although the number has dropped, meth still comprises roughly 60 percent of all drug cases in Mesa County. The Meth Task Force continues to expand the capacity for support groups for relatives of addicts.
“Meth is going to stay for some time,” Berry said. “It still continues to be our No. 1 drug of problems.”
Rubinstein said when the Meth Task Force formed in 2006, there was a lot of “low-hanging fruit,” easily identifiable problems to tackle. The challenge now, he said, is to continue to analyze meth’s impacts on the community — those may not be as evident as they once were — and dig for solutions.
How stakeholders do that will change in the years to come. The Meth Task Force’s budget is expected to drop from $85,000 this year to about $70,000 next year, largely because of reduced local government revenue, according to Joe Higgins, director of Mesa County Partners, the nonprofit organization that serves as the Meth Task Force’s fiscal agent.
The Meth Task Force set a goal earlier this fall to eliminate the coordinator position by the middle of 2011.
Officials are counting on existing agencies and a core group of volunteers to carry on the Meth Task Force’s work.
“The intent all along here wasn’t to create a bureaucracy but try to come up with a logical way to use resources in the community to address the meth problem, and I feel like we’ve done that,” Higgins said.
Rubinstein said it was easier for the Meth Task Force to obtain public and private funding “when Sam Lincoln was driving around town shooting at the cops.” But because meth isn’t dominating the headlines, he’s concerned people may get the false sense that the drug has faded from the community.
“Our fear is they look around and think, ‘We’ve solved that problem,’ ” Rubinstein said. “But our job isn’t done.”