Drug Task Force works to rid area of drugs

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   Sell. Bust. Trial. Conviction. Sentence. This is the world of drugs, law enforcement and justice.
   "Some people treat drugs as a social problem, but the legislature doesn't see it that way," said District Attorney General Joe Crummley. "It's not a social crime; it's a crime."
   One of the local agencies involved in many narcotics investigations in the area is the First Judicial Drug Task Force. "We do undercover operations," said DTF Director Ken Phillips.
   The agency works in both short term and long term investigations into narcotics and also assists area law enforcement officers in other kinds of investigations, such as homicide and burglary.
   The DTF serves Carter, Washington, Johnson and Unicoi Counties.
   "The agents assigned here are from area Sheriff's and Police Departments," Phillips said, adding that the force is usually made up of between nine and 11 agents. Agents usually have at least three or four years of experience with law enforcement before being assigned to the DTF and most of the time have to take an assessment test.
   DTF agents spend a lot of time training for the jobs that they do. While most law enforcement officers spend about 40 hours a year attending classes and training seminars, most DTF agents will spend as many as 120-200 a year attending classes on everything from interviewing and interrogation to surveillance and informant management.
   Investigations into possible narcotics cases usually begins with intelligence, Phillips said. The force gets tips from their informants as well as police officers and information from other drug busts and concerned citizens. "It comes from both police and civilians," he said.
   Once the DTF receives information about the possibility of drugs, the agency begins to work to try to arrange a drug buy in order to apprehend the seller. "Normally through an informant we try to do an agent introduction but if we can't, we let the informant buy for us," Phillips said.
   The DTF monitors and records drug transactions with audio and video surveillance equipment. According to Phillips, the DTF handles approximately 400 cases a year.
   Each of the counties that is serviced by the DTF faces it's own drug problems, according to Phillips and Crummley. "In the four years I've been the DA, I get to go to the different counties and see just what the particular problem is," Crummley said.
   According to both Crummley and Phillips, the drugs most often found in Carter County are prescribed medications which are being misused. "In Carter County, one of the most difficult things to get a judge to understand is why he has a four pill case on his docket," Crummley said, adding that in some instances with certain drugs, four pills can cost more than $200.
   According to Phillips, cocaine and crack cocaine are prevalent in Johnson City and Washington County.
   However, another drug is making its presence known in the Tri-Cities area - methamphetamine. "In the past three years, it's increased dramatically," Phillips said. The drug, commonly known as Meth, is already presenting a problem in Johnson and Washington Counties and is currently "making a rise" in Unicoi County, he said.
   "The most dangerous drug we're running into is methamphetamine," said Crummley. "In some parts of the country, it's called 'poor man's cocaine.'"
   Meth can be manufactured at home with some readily available, but very hazardous chemicals. Because of the hazard the chemicals can pose to an officer's health, extra precaution has to be taken when investigating a meth lab and when destroying one. "A small lab will cost about $5,000 to clean up," said Crummley. "A large lab can cost as much as $50,000 to clean up."
   Methamphetamine is classified as a Schedule II narcotic, along with cocaine, crack cocaine and PCP. Drug scheduling in Tennessee was decided upon by the Tennessee State Legislature. Drugs like heroin and LSD are classified as Schedule I.
   Schedule III is made up mostly of prescription medications such as Lortab, Steroids and Vicodin; as is Schedule IV, which includes Xanax and Valium.
   Codeine is the primary focus of Schedule V and, according to state law, codeine must be sent to a crime lab to determine its strength before a schedule can be applied to it. Marijuana, hashish and hash oil make up Schedule VI.
   Sentencing for a narcotics offense depends on the schedule of the drug, how much of it was found or sold, and whether the person has a prior criminal record. According to Crummley, a mandatory minimum fine of $2,000 is imposed on any drug felony.
   Sentences can range from one to 30 years, of which the person may serve only 30 percent. For example, Crummley said, a person serving a three-year sentence for a Class C drug felony could be released from prison after 10 months and 24 days.
   "I've seen 10 year offenders serve less than a year and that doesn't send a good message to the public," he said.
   Crummley stated that he would like to see harsher penalties for narcotics violations. "Because our punishments are so low, we are becoming a market for other dealers," he said, noting that he had prosecuted dealers from North Carolina, New York and even Connecticut for drug deals made in this area.