Law Enforcement: Cocaine on Upward Trend

Source: Bowling Green Daily News

For the first time in more than 10 years cocaine appears to be making a comeback in the United States with local law enforcement agencies seeing an uptick in the drug here and bracing for its effects on their resources as well as the human toll the drug takes.

Opioids, methamphetamine and marijuana continue to consume a vast amount of manpower and financial resources for police and the justice system in this area, causing concern for already taxed narcotics officers as they see an increase locally in cocaine use and trafficking.

What is likely driving the upward trend is the substantial increase in the illegal coca crop cultivation in Colombia.

“The opioid epidemic demands urgent action as a top priority of U.S. and international drug control efforts, but we must also remain vigilant to prevent backsliding where progress has been achieved, such as the long-term reduction in cocaine use and availability within the United States,” according to the U.S. Department of State Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs’ International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume 1 released this month.

“There are troubling early signs that cocaine use and availability is on the rise in the United States for the first time in nearly a decade. Coca cultivation in Colombia increased by 39 percent in 2014 and again by 42 percent in 2015 to 159,000 hectares, nearing record highs, and this surge in production may be having effects within the United States,” according to the report.

In a Tuesday release from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, coca growth rose again last year to 188,000 hectares. One hectare is equivalent to a little more than 2.7 acres.

“According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, there was an increase in cocaine seizures nationwide between 2014 and 2015, and the number of overdose deaths within the United States involving cocaine in 2015 was the highest since 2007,” according to the Narcotics Control Strategy Report.

Nationally, there has been a 54 percent increase in the number of cocaine overdose deaths from 2012 to 2015, according to the Tuesday release.

The amount of finished cocaine trafficked out of Colombia stands at record levels. Colombia is the United States’ largest cocaine supplier.

Cocaine seizures increase locally

“It certainly should increase the availability at the wholesale level and that would make it more available to our local traffickers,” Bowling Green-Warren County Drug Task Force Director Tommy Loving said of the increase in Colombian cocaine production.

“Recently we have seen a significant influx in cocaine in the area while it had been on the decrease for the last several years,” Loving said.

In 2015 the task force seized a little over 100 grams of cocaine. Last year the task force seized 408 grams of cocaine, a 308 percent increase. In the first two months of 2017 the task force has seized 130 grams.

“There is definitely an upward trend,” Loving said.

Bowling Green Police Department arrests for both cocaine trafficking and cocaine possession have increased from 2015 to 2016, Bowling Green Police Department spokesman Officer Ronnie Ward said. In 2015, city police made 24 cocaine possession arrests. Last year that number increased to 31. Police made one cocaine trafficking arrest in 2015 and five arrests last year.

Cocaine seizure numbers are rising in counties surrounding Warren as well.

“If we had had this conversation a year and half ago, I would have said crack is dead,” South Central Kentucky Drug Task Force Director Jacky Hunt said. “Starting last year, my guys, especially in Franklin and Russellville, were starting to buy crack on the street and then it got to be a little more frequent and little more frequent until we raided a house in Franklin.

“For 2015, we seized 74 grams of cocaine the entire year,” Hunt said. Last year the task force seized 200 grams of cocaine.

“This year we’ve already seized over 230-240 grams of cocaine and we’re only in March,” Hunt said.

While most of what Bowling Green narcotics officers are seeing is powder cocaine, the drug is only one step away from being made into crack. Both powder and crack cocaine led to thousands of deaths and other violent crimes nationwide in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Cocaine surge could have multiple effects

“With commuted sentences recently by the former president some number of the upper-level crack cocaine traffickers are going to be released from federal prison that have much experience in trafficking of cocaine and crack cocaine, so that is something we’ll be watching and also may be a partial driver in the increase,” Loving said. “We’ll be paying attention to that in this area.”

Former President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 1,715 people – mostly drug offenders – more than the total number of commutations issued by the previous 12 presidents combined.

“We will through our traditional methods of interdiction try to stem the flow,” Loving said. But the influx of illicit drugs into the country has to be stopped at the border.

“We had some violence and a lot of issues with parts of town being taken over by crack cocaine dealers in the late ’90s that we dealt with where we had street corner sales going on. After eliminating the bulk of the crack cocaine dealers and market that has pretty much gone away,” Loving said. “During that time, the demand for service during the tail end of the crack cocaine epidemic when the task force first started, that consumed probably 70 percent of our investigative efforts.”

Hunt started his law enforcement career in 1992 at BGPD. Two years later he left to work as a Kentucky State Police trooper until he retired in 2012. During his tenure with KSP he investigated drug crimes for the Drug Enforcement Special Investigations West branch of KSP.

“I got into investigations in 1999 and 2000. When I was working the street and working the road, it was all crack and cocaine. By the mid-2000s the crack sales had plummeted and the meth sales had skyrocketed. In the ’90s nearly everyone in court was in court for crack, and flip forward several years and those same people were in court for meth.

“Now we’re starting to see crack back on the street like we once were,” Hunt said of Logan and Simpson counties.

“In the early to mid-’90s, crack was everywhere. There were people lined up and down the street selling it. I can remember Third Street in Bowling Green, you were likely to get knocked in the head going through there,” Hunt said. “People were selling crack openly. That was before the drug task force formed. One thing cellphones did was it took away the street corner dealer. When people didn’t have cellphones they had to go looking for it. Now you get somebody’s number and call them up.”

A growing resurgence in cocaine could substantially affect resources to combat the illicit drug trade locally.

“This will just further eat away at our limited resources at a time when we have not seen any increase in federal funding to assist drug task forces,” Loving said. “In federal resources from our grants at the task force we’re receiving 30 percent less than we did 20 years ago and have much more to deal with now. And until the federal government can control drugs coming across the border, it’s difficult for me to buy that this is a state and local issue. …

“Our problems have expanded to include more drugs, while our federal resources to assist us in dealing with that have decreased,” Loving said.

Hunt agreed that a surge in cocaine would increase an already heavy burden for narcotics officers in Logan and Simpson counties.

“It’s going to limit our resources,” Hunt said.

“It seems like we’re always dealing with that one major drug. When one takes hold, the others subside,” he said. “But crystal meth hasn’t subsided. Heroin is coming on strong, and cocaine is making a comeback. We’ve already seized more heroin so far this year then we did all of last year.

“It gives me great concern,” Hunt said of cocaine. “If it comes back to the way it used to be, we’re going to see a big increase in drug crime which affects a lot of other crime.

“It affects everybody. It affects our economy,” he said.

That’s because many addicts steal to get money to feed their habit.

In neighboring Allen and Barren counties, the Barren River Drug Task Force continues to grapple the most with crystal meth like the other task forces in this area of the state. However, cocaine is beginning to trickle into those markets as well.

Thursday, Glasgow police seized 9.9 grams of suspected cocaine during a drug investigation on Bryan Street. Police charged the home’s occupant, William J. Watts, 41, with first-degree trafficking in a controlled substance over four grams of cocaine, according to his arrest citation. He was also charged with trafficking marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

The Barren River Drug Task Force seized a total of 16.3 grams of powder and crack cocaine last year. So far this year, the task force has seized 25.8 grams of powder cocaine, task force director Ron Lafferty said.

“We’re on pace to blow out the last three years,” he said.

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