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Cuts threaten drug enforcement

| January 20, 2005 11:00 PM

Cutbacks in federal grant programs are threatening law enforcement agencies¹ fight against methamphetamine locally and across Montana.

For the past several years Montana has funded seven multi-jurisdictional drug task forces and one statewide drug task force with federal dollars. The grants were awarded to local and state law enforcement agencies by the Montana Board of Crime Control and last year added up to $2.1 million.

Lincoln County is part of the Northwest Drug Task Force, which also covers Flathead and Lake counties and the Salish-Kootenai Tribe.

Following congressional action late last year, the Board of Crime Control expects to have about $1.37 million available to award in the state fiscal year that begins July 1. At a meeting earlier this month, the board voted to seek state funding to make up for the loss in available money.

The federal shift toward direct grants to local law enforcement agencies endangers the multi-agency drug task forces, said Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath.

³None of us needs to look very far to know that Montana has a serious methamphetamine problem,² McGrath said, ³and no one agency can fight it alone. These changes will radically alter the way Montana funds its drug task forces.²

In Lincoln County, the grants fund two of the four detective positions at the sheriff¹s office, said detective Lt. Jim Sweet. Both of those officers are assigned to work drug cases. While it remains to be seen how the federal cuts will be handled at the state level, the potential loss of nearly half of those funds could cripple local drug enforcement efforts, Sweet said.

³If they take away one of my two guys we¹re done,² he said.

For various reasons including officer safety and evidence gathering, one detective can¹t work alone on drug cases, Sweet said.

All the methamphetamine labs that have been seized and all the undercover drug buys that have taken place in recent years in Lincoln County are a result of investigations funded by the federal grants, Sweet said.

³If that budget disappears, Lincoln County I don¹t think will be able to absorb that and pull up that slack,² he said.