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Gila County last year got $318,000 from a state/federal grant program to strengthen its investigations of drugs and gangs.

It spent most of the money arresting street-level drug users.

But then, so did most of the counties that divided up millions in state and federal grants — with most of the money come the seizures of cars, cash, guns and even houses of people convicted of drug offenses.

Interestingly, Gila County got far more per-capita than neighboring, rural counties — and spent a much larger share on arrests for possession rather than sale and transportation of illegal drugs.

The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission’s Byrne Grant knits together every county and police forces in the state in an effort to cope with an international drug trafficking network with huge effects in every community in the nation.

Most of the money goes to pay for prosecutors and police officers, with some funding for things like lab testing and a national fingerprint database. The program focused on breaking up drug sales and distribution rings, but in practice about 82 percent of the resulting arrests were for simple possession.

In 2018, some $318,000 went to Gila County, $225,000 to Apache County and $234,000 to Navajo County. So Gila County got far more money, although it has less than half the population of either of the other two rural counties.

The report revealed dramatic differences between counties when it comes to both how much money they received through the state and federal grant program, as well as the results.

For instance, the county-by-county reports showed that about 80 percent of the drug arrests in Gila County were for possession — compared just 29 percent in Navajo County. So Gila County’s spending a lot more money per capita than either Navajo or Apache — but most of the money has gone into arresting street-level users rather than the networks that distribute and sell the drugs. Perhaps that accounts for Navajo County seizing $2,500 in drugs for each dollar received through the grants while neighboring Gila County seized just $51 per dollar spent — at least in 2018.

Each county in the 2018 summary also provided a narrative of a couple of big cases. Those summaries suggest that many of the cases result from random traffic stops rather than from elaborate investigations. However, the grants that knit together every county and city with state and federal law enforcement foster cooperation.

Since 1988, the program has handed out a total of $367 million in grants and helped account for 129,000 arrests, according to the 2018 summary prepared by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission.

The reports showed marijuana still accounts for many of the arrests and most of the value of the drugs seized in most counties, despite the widespread availability of medical marijuana and the legalization of all uses of the drug in Colorado and California. Marijuana-based arrests and seizures have been declining, while arrests for meth and heroin have been on the rise. This reflects the nation’s latest drug epidemic, which started with prescription drug abuse and has now morphed into a big rise in the use of heroin. Rural areas like Navajo, Apache and Gila counties have been especially hard hit.

The nation has invested heavily in trying to stamp out the use and sale of psychoactive drugs in the past 30 years, with decidedly mixed results.

The nation spends an estimated $51 billion annually on investigations, arrests and incarcerations for drug use, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. The so-called “war on drugs” in the U.S. has produced the world’s highest incarceration rate. The U.S. locks up 714 out of every 100,000 residents and Arizona locks up almost 1,200 of every 100,000 residents. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population and 22 percent of its prisoners. The incarceration rate has increased five-fold in the past 40 years. People arrested for drug crimes account for about 21 percent of state prisoners and 55 percent of federal prisoners.

Roughly 1.5 million Americans are arrested each year for drug offenses, with big differences in incarceration rates for blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics when compared to whites. For instance, African Americans account for 35 percent of drug arrests but 74 percent of those sentenced to prison for drug possession.

Various studies have found little long-term effect on the availability or use of illegal drugs as enforcement efforts have waxed and waned — or targeted one drug or another.

Gila County 2018 highlights:

• In April of 2018, an investigation on the Tonto Apache Reservation at the Mazatzal Casino resulted in the seizure of 21 pounds of meth, 29 grams of high-grade marijuana and half a gram of heroin, through an investigation that involved the Gila County Drug, Gang, and Violent Crimes Task Force, in a collaboration with the Tonto Apache Reservation Police Department, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the FBI, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs Drug Enforcement Division. Officers said they saw suspicious activity and called in drug-sniffing dogs. The drugs were valued at $1.1 million.

• In October of 2017 a traffic stop on Highway 70 in southern Gila County led to the seizure of 302 grams of meth, 8 grams of hydroponic marijuana, $12,533.00 in U.S. currency, 131 items of drug paraphernalia, one semi-automatic handgun, eight other weapons, and 618 rounds of ammunition. That arrest led to the later arrest of a suspected supplier for the Globe and Miami area as well as the San Carlos Apache Reservation

• In August of 2017, the investigation of an armed robbery on the White Mountain Apache Reservation led to a follow-up investigation at the home of two suspects in Globe. A warrant and drug-sniffing dogs led to the discovery of 8.2 grams of meth, 7.9 grams of heroin, two prescription pain pills and 30 drug paraphernalia items, along with a firearm that matched the weapon used in the armed robbery. Five suspects were arrested for various drug charges including distribution of narcotic and dangerous drugs. The methamphetamine seized had a street value of $8,200 and the heroin seized had a street value of $7,900.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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