Drug traffic rolls on despite terror
Drug traffickers might have been deterred immediately following the events of Sept. 11, but they did not stay that way for long, as shown by a double-digit increase in the number of seizures made at the nation’s borders and ports of entry during October and November of 2001.
In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, seizures of marijuana and heroin from Mexico plummeted by an estimated 80 percent. At the Canadian border, there was a 60-percent drop in seizures of Ecstasy and high-grade marijuana. But a Coast Guard spokesman said the agency is interdicting drugs at sea at almost pre-Sept. 11 levels. Joint patrols involving the Coast Guard and the Navy resulted in the seizures of two shipments from vessels off the Pacific Coast of Central America.
And along the Canadian border, agents seized 326 percent more drugs from trucks, ships and planes than during the previous October and November. The overall increase was 66 percent at all borders and ports of entry.
In New York, agents for the office of the city’s special narcotics prosecutor, Bridget G. Brennan, seized 1,679 pounds of cocaine between Sept. 11 and Dec. 30, compared with 1,082 pounds during that same period in 2000; 725 pounds of marijuana as compared to a pound and a half; and 302,000 Ecstasy pills as compared with 1,011. Brennan said her office also seized $4.2 million in drug trafficking money as compared with $600,000 during the same three months last year.
“There has been a definite unintended consequence of the effort against terror: we are doing a better job of keeping illegal drugs out of the United States,” said Customs Service Commissioner Robert C. Bonner.
But it is unclear whether the increase means that federal agencies are intercepting a bigger share of the total volume of drugs smuggled into the U.S., or that traffickers are simply sending more. “It could be either, or both,” Joe Keefe, chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, told The New York Times. “It’s too early to tell.”
What is known by now, however, is that drug prices and availability have not fallen, despite the heightened security. It is far too early to know yet what effect the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan will have on the heroin supply. Afghanistan produces about 75 percent of the world’s heroin, with most of that going to Western Europe.
Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske told The Times that the steady prices of drugs in his city indicate that “estimates of what is coming into the country may have been wrong and that far more drugs were coming into the country than we were aware of.”
And problems caused by drugs produced within the country, such as methamphetamine and the prescription painkiller OxyContin, did not disappear in the aftermath of the attacks.
OxyContin, a synthetic morphine used to treat chronic pain from cancer and other illnesses, was identified last year by law enforcement authorities as the next big narcotic scourge. In some regions, it has appeared to live up to those expectations.
Dubbed “hillbilly heroin,” the drug produces an intense high when the 12-hour time-release mechanism in its coating is crushed. Users than snort the drug or inject it.
In 2001, police along the Eastern Seaboard found themselves responding to dozens of pharmacy robberies in cities from Maine to Virginia. OxyContin has been blamed for more than 100 deaths nationwide and is suspected in at least 100 more since it came on the market in 1996. Several residents of Lee County, Va., pleaded guilty in October to selling more than $2.5 million worth of OxyContin over a three-year period. The arrests followed a yearlong investigation by law enforcement agencies in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Virginia State Police in April investigated the theft of $12,000 worth of the drug from a Fairfax pharmacy, and a man was arrested in Manassas after allegedly stealing 90 bottles of the painkiller from a Fauquier County drug store. Other incidents last year involving the drug included a man arrested by the Summit County, Ohio, Sheriff’s Office for using a butcher’s knife to steal 1,400 pills.
In the Midwest and Far West, authorities hoping to stop the spread of methamphetamine called on non-law enforcement personnel for additional help. State officials in Nebraska enlisted the assistance of farmers and farm co-op employees by presenting a meth lab recognition class in March for some 50 employees to raise awareness of the products used to make the drug, such as the fertilizer anhydrous ammonia.
Elsewhere in 2001:
Missouri State Senator Anita Yeckel (R.-Sunset Hills) said in March she would sponsor a measure to restrict the amount of pseudoephedrine that could be sold by retailers. The drug, found in cold medication, is an ingredient in meth production. The bill would ban the sale of more than three packages in a single transaction.
The St. Charles County, Mo., Sheriff’s Department will use a $95,256 grant from the DEA to hire personnel and buy equipment under an emergency “methamphetamine hot spots agreement” approved in February by the County Council.
A home-based meth “factory” in South Riverside, Calif., believed to have been producing $3 million of the drug per week was shut down by police in March. The search warrant was executed after a six-month investigation by the West County Narcotics Task Force.
Over the past 10 years, the number of those seeking treatment for methamphetamine abuse in Utah County, Utah, has increased by 5,000 percent.
Researchers last year reported that the brains of methamphetamine addicts remain permanently damaged even after they stop taking the drug. A study released in March by The American Journal of Psychiatry was the first to find a direct link between meth use and learning and memory deficits. Addicts were found to have nearly 25 percent less dopamine, a brain chemical that regulates pleasure and movement, than non-users.
There was action by lawmakers at the federal, state and local levels, too, as old drug laws were reviewed and new measures enforced:
New York Gov. George Pataki proposed in February that the state’s harsh Rockefeller-era drug laws be revised. Under Pataki’s plan — which by year’s end had not been carried out — mandatory prison sentences would have been reduced; treatment options made available for nonviolent repeat offenders; and a modicum of discretion returned to sentencing judges. Pataki’s initiative was criticized by the state’s district attorneys association, which considers the sentencing laws a highly effective tool in combating drug trafficking.
As many as 42,000 applicants for federal student loans could be affected by the enforcement of a law which denies financial aid to those who either admit to a recent drug conviction or leave the question blank on the aid applications. Representative Barney Frank (D.-Mass.) led a campaign last year to have the measure repealed. In February, Frank introduced legislation that would overturn the law.
The 2002 budget unveiled by President Bush in March proposed slashing the Drug Elimination Program, a $310-million initiative administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds law enforcement and crime prevention initiatives in the nation’s public housing.