Bucks for Busts

Police drug units benefit from federal stimulus

Last week’s so-called drug raid on an Española-area school made national headlines when the bust netted tomatoes instead of marijuana.

What the stories didn't say is that the operation wasn't just another example of America's fruitless (tomatoes not withstanding) War on Drugs. It was also an example of Your Stimulus Dollars at Work.

The stimulus package nearly tripled New Mexico’s federal funding for local law enforcement, much of which goes to anti-drug operations.

Take, for example, the incident at the Montessori Santa Cruz middle school Camino de Paz: Four agents in bulletproof vests, and one in camouflage preceded portentously by a low-flying, army-green helicopter, descended upon the school to check out its (tomato-filled) greenhouse. That action was performed by the Region III Multijurisdictional Drug Task Force, which covers Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Taos counties. It is one of seven such enforcement groups operating in New Mexico under the auspices of the US Department of Justice.

The task forces are funded primarily through the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants Program, which funnels federal funding into local and state-level law enforcement. New Mexico's Byrne funding has hovered between $3.5 million and $4 million since 1995, according to the Statewide Drug Strategy released this May by the governor's Drug Enforcement Advisory Council.

This year, however,

as part of the 2009 stimulus package, New Mexico received an additional $11 million

in Byrne funding, designated for the New Mexico Department of Public Safety. DPS, according to its program plan, aims to spend most of the money on the state’s seven drug task forces, the New Mexico Gang Task Force and upgrading information technology.

Priority one, according to the plan, is to "Preserve and create jobs and promote economic recovery."

(DPS spokesman Eric Garcia did not respond to SFR's questions about the task forces' makeup and funding by press time.)

"Those federal grant programs are jobs programs," Keith Stroup, the founder and legal counsel for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, tells SFR. "They're driven by the [goal] that law enforcement create and maintain jobs."

Stroup doesn’t deny that jobs are needed, but he takes issue with the notion of creating them at the expense of, say, Santa Cruz schoolchildren or even small-time marijuana producers.

"That's a stupid policy, turning otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals just to fund a jobs program," Stroup says. "It's a hopeless task," he adds. "You're going to continue to have new growers show up [after a bust] because it's such a profitable business."

NORML and the Drug Policy Alliance, which has also voiced opposition to the Byrne program, aren't the only ones objecting.

In 2005, Rio Grande Foundation President Paul Gessing, then the director of government affairs for the National Taxpayers Union, penned an open letter to US House and Senate appropriations committees requesting the elimination of the entire Byrne program for its lack of success and “inefficient use of resources.”

That’s still a refrain among conservative groups. In May 2009, The Heritage Foundation Senior Policy Analyst David Muhlhausen testified before Congress that the Byrne program’s stimulus increase would “do little to stimulate the economy” and “do not fund vital drug enforcement activities.”

In New Mexico, according to stimulus reports, the recent increase in Byrne funding has created 52.35 full-time jobs%uFFFDapproximately 40 of those in law enforcement and 9.84 in administrative or human resources positions.

Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano has two full-time narcotics officers on the Region III Task Force, which also includes officers from the City of Santa Fe Police Department and the New Mexico State Police. The US Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation and New Mexico National Guard assist the task force, Solano says, "from time to time, depending on the case."

But Solano says Santa Fe County still pays his narcotics officers’ salaries; the Byrne program pays only the overtime. Helicopters, he says, are on loan from the New Mexico National Guard, and “I don’t know where they get their funding.”

New Mexico National Guard press contact LTC Jamison Herrera did not return multiple phone calls.

The task force's results are spotty.

Statewide, marijuana seizures have fluctuated, and seizures during the 2009 fiscal year were the lowest since 2004. Regional task forces accomplished only a tiny fraction of those seizures; most were the work of state police.

According to the most recent numbers, from this June, Region III Task Force's marijuana seizures are up%uFFFDthough Solano says investigations in Madrid have yielded less than usual.

According to calls from concerned residents in Madrid, flyovers and drug busts have intensified in the areas around Santa Fe in recent months. Solano says that's part of an annual marijuana eradication initiative that does most of its work between June and September.

"We get complaints from Madrid every year, but [among] the highest number of plantations are found in the Madrid area every year," Solano notes. Taos, La Cienega and "anywhere along the Rio Grande corridor" are other task force focal points, he says.

“The time we have with the helicopters is limited, so it doesn’t make sense to just wander aimlessly,” Solano explains. “We target areas [where] we know marijuana is consistently.”

But headlines that describe the Santa Cruz incident as a "Military-Style Marijuana Raid" are counterproductive, Solano says.

“You can’t really call these raids,” he says. “In cases like this, it’s called a knock-and-talk: You knock on the door, and you politely say, ‘I’m Officer So-and-So; we saw you have a greenhouse here, and we’d like to see what you have in it,’” Solano explains. “If they say no, then, if we have evidence there’s maybe marijuana in there, we get a warrant; if not, we walk away,” he adds. “To call it a raid is just sensationalizing.”

Patricia Pantano, the education director at Camino de Paz Montessori School and Farm in Santa Cruz, shares a similar opinion.

“This is an amazing school, and the students here do amazing things. To try to get coverage on that is [difficult]. Then this, and it’s everywhere; it’s on Huffington Post!” Pantano says. “It’s not exactly how you’d like to have your school remembered.”

Pantano, who has told the story countless times to countless media outlets, describes the "raid" in terms similar to Solano's.

“They didn’t come storming in with their weapons unholstered or anything,” Pantano says. “The whole thing%uFFFDa helicopter flyover followed by a brief look at the greenhouse (which was full of tomatoes)%uFFFDtook approximately 30 to 45 minutes,” she says. 

Solano admits that four men in bulletproof vests aren’t exactly low-key, but he says the officers likely couldn’t have seen from the air that Camino de Paz was a school.

“The fact that this was a school makes this embarrassing, not the fact that they found tomatoes,” Solano says. “There would be just as much criticism if we allowed large plantations to grow in America while we are pushing the Mexican government to engage in this drug war where thousands of people are being killed. It would be kind of hypocritical.”

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