By Pat Caldwell
ONTARIO – Methamphetamine continues to be the most abused illegal drug in Malheur County but heroin is returning.
That was the main takeaway from area police leaders and the chief of the High Desert Drug Task Force last week in the wake of the release of a state report on illegal narcotics use.
“Meth is and has been the prominent drug of choice for quite a while here. Having said that, heroin is making a comeback,” said Brian Wolfe, Malheur County Sheriff.
The report by the Oregon-Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program concluded the biggest illegal narcotic threats to the state are methamphetamine and heroin. The use and trafficking of opiates, such as heroin, has continued to climb in Oregon, according to the report. A high intensity drug trafficking area typically is a geographic location where large amounts of illegal narcotics pass through or are distributed. Malheur County, along with Ada and Canyon counties in Idaho, make up the regional drug trafficking area. Meth remains king in the county as arrests for the illegal drug represented 84 percent of all narcotics arrests last year.
In Oregon, the highest percentage of drug-connected arrests in 2016 was for methamphetamine use.
The state reported that most meth coming into the county is from drug trafficking organizations based in Idaho. The report said the High Desert Task Force investigated one such drug enterprise in 2016, but officials with the task force declined comment because the investigation is continuing.
The state said the task force didn’t seize any cash or other assets in 2016. Such seizures usually indicate the investigation or arrest of large-scale traffickers.
Illegal narcotics reach the county from Mexico via states such as Arizona, Idaho and California and are distributed by low-level dealers.
“It (meth) is being shipped up the pipeline from Mexico,” said Ray Rau, Nyssa police chief.
Rau said his department has also noticed a change lately in how the meth is used.
“The meth users are shooting up versus smoking or snorting it,” said Rau.
Meth use also contributes to other crimes, said Det. Sgt. Bob Speelman of the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, who leads the local drug task force. It covers Malheur County and Payette and Washington counties in Idaho.
“Our burglaries and thefts are directly related to our drug problem,” said Speelman.
Speelman directs three full-time and two part time detectives. All of the detectives on the High Desert Task Force come from local police agencies. The full-time detectives are delegated from the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, the Ontario Police Department and the Payette Police Department.
The Fruitland and Weiser Police Departments also contribute detectives part-time to the task force.
Last year the task force confiscated a total of a half a pound of meth in 28 seizures, according to the state report issued last month.
“About 30 percent were in Idaho and the majority over here,” said Speelman.
Speelman’s task force depends on informants to and surveillance to identify drug dealers.
Illegal narcotics like meth reach the streets through a descending ladder of capitalism, said Speelman.
The major drug dealer acquires a pound of meth for between $3,000 to $5,000 and then breaks it down into ounces. The dealer then sells it to another narcotic merchant for $400 to $600 an ounce. That dealer turns around and breaks the meth down into what are called “balls” of about 3.5 grams.
The “balls” are sold for $50 to $80 a gram to active meth users or low-level drug dealers. The users or smaller dealers will then turn and sell a tenth of a gram – called a “point” – for $10 to $15.
“On each transaction the dealers make money, some a large amount, and the user-dealer makes enough to support their habit,” said Speelman.
The state report showed the task force made one seizure of heroin last year. Arrests in Malheur County for heroin dropped by more than 80 percent from 2013 to 2016. That low arrest rate may change, though. That’s because more heroin is reaching local streets at a faster rate than in the past.
“We are seeing more of it,” said Speelman.
“We are seeing more heroin than meth right now, which is troubling,” said Rau.
Ontario police have confiscated some heroine but meth remains the main illegal narcotic in town, said Police Chief Cal Kunz.
“What we are seizing, the lion’s share is meth. We are seeing heroin but it is not overtaking meth,” said Kunz.
Kunz said he hopes the addition of a drug dog to his force in a few weeks will boost drug seizures.
“From my experience, a drug dog can make a big impact,” said Kunz.
One indicator of widespread heroin use is a high number of overdoses but so far that hasn’t occurred in Malheur County.
Last year, Speelman said, there were two overdoses – and no deaths – linked to heroin.
The prospect heroin could reach the county in large quantities makes Rau uneasy.
“It is absolutely terrifying and it is coming this way,” said Rau.
Rau said it is also time to develop new methods to combat drug abuse.
“Society now is so reactive. We are focusing on the drugs themselves instead of focusing on why people use drugs,” said Rau.
Rau said more mental health and drug treatment options locally would make a big difference.
“Let’s focus on removing the need. Look at why people are using them,” he said.
Have a news tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at email@example.com or 541-473-3377.