Mexican drug organizations are active in the Triangle, while heroin and methamphetamine use is on the rise, Sheriff Donnie Harrison says.
So county commissioners on Monday vowed to give him more money to combat the threat he sees.
The Wake County Board of Commissioners in a ceremonial vote unanimously approved a midyear expansion of the sheriff’s drugs and vice unit by adding three investigators, bringing the unit to 14 members.
The vote designates $103,600 in existing funds within the sheriff’s budget to fund the positions for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends in June. The move also allocated $207,000 for the next fiscal year, which starts in July. The Sheriff’s Office is also expected to use $173,343 in federal grants.
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Without offering arrest and seizure statistics or producing a report his office referenced in a letter to commissioners, Harrison stressed the importance of the additional officers as he spoke at a Board of Commissioners meeting.
The Sheriff’s Office didn’t present a direct link between recent drug busts and Mexican drug organizations but cited the “Atlanta-Carolinas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area 2014 Threat Assessment” report as a reference.
The Sheriff's Office, however, didn’t provide the report to The News & Observer, and the U.S. Department of Justice didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry about the document.
A similar 2010 DOJ report describes some of the issues to which Harrison’s office alluded. Interstate 40 “provides Mexican traffickers with a direct route from drug transit areas in Barstow, California, through Flagstaff, Arizona; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Memphis, Tennessee, into Greensboro, Durham, and Raleigh, North Carolina,” the 2010 report says.
At the meeting, Harrison said the area’s extensive highway and interstate system, coupled with its growing population, make it an appealing location for drug trafficking.
“Increasingly, Mexican DTO’s (drug trafficking organizations) are transporting cocaine directly into the region and bypassing traditional distribution locations such as Atlanta,” his office wrote in a letter to commissioners.
Commissioners early last year denied his request for additional deputies for his drug and vice unit, Harrison said after the meeting.
“They felt like it wasn’t the time,” he said. “I didn’t argue the fact; I just went out and built a little stronger of a case.”
On Monday, Harrison promised commissioners they’d see results from their investment.
“If you allow me to have those investigators, we’ll make a dent. We’ll make a big dent,” he said.
“If the public knows we have more people working on drugs, that’s a deterrent,” he added.
Commissioners supported Harrison without hesitation.
“This allows us to go after more fish, bigger fish,” Matt Calabria said.
Caroline Sullivan noted a spike in overdoses locally, and Jessica Holmes pointed out that young people are the heaviest users.
“While this is not a pretty conversation to have, it is a critical conversation to have,” Holmes said.
The board’s move comes a month after Wake deputies reported seizing 46 kilograms – about 100 pounds – of cocaine. It comes a little more than a year after deputies seized cocaine with a purity level of 97 percent, an unusually high level that typically indicates the presence of expert traffickers, Harrison told commissioners.
“That tells us that we’re beginning to be the center, the hub,” he said.
Heroin and methamphetamine use is also increasing, Harrison said. Wake deputies in 2013 seized 2 kilograms of heroin, which the county reported as one of the largest seizures in the office’s history.
Spike in overdoses
Meanwhile, WakeMed Health and Hospitals says the number of patients needing treatment for heroin overdoses has increased since 2010, when the system treated seven patients.
The WakeMed system treated 21 patients the following year, 39 in 2012, 50 in 2013, 49 in 2014 and 71 last year, according to the hospital’s public relations office.
The additional resources will help the Sheriff’s Office target larger drug trafficking operations and fill a void in enforcement, Harrison said.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration mostly targets drug busts involving more than a kilogram of narcotics, he said. Meanwhile, Harrison said the Sheriff’s Office until Monday only had the resources to track down much smaller drug deals at the street level.
Additional manpower equips the Wake sheriff to target drug dealers that are above street level but aren’t big enough to draw the attention of the DEA, Harrison added.
The commissioners’ move shows Wake is serious about keeping communities safe, Harrison said, and he hopes residents will join his effort to crack down on drug traffickers.
There are many Wake County communities where residents are aware of increased drug activity but are afraid to report it because they fear deportation, Harrison said. He urged those residents to report the activity and tried to quell their worries.
“We’re not worried about you being undocumented,” he said from the lectern in front of commissioners. “We just want to get the drugs out of the community.”