Last week, for the first time in his five years as a county commissioner, Doug Monger finally saw a presentation about the GRAMNET drug task force's budget.
Now, Monger, who asked for the presentation to be sure he could justify why Routt County is setting aside funds for the Grand, Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team, said he thinks the task force will make a similar presentation every year.
"We definitely have a drug problem in our community, as we do statewide and nationwide," Monger said. "At the same time, we will never be able to throw enough resources at it to eliminate it."
The key is determining the level of service that balances what the community is willing to fund with what will produce results, he said.
And with federal budget cuts looming, local governmental officials soon could have to decide whether it is appropriate to increase their contributions to GRAMNET. Currently, each of the counties involved in the task force, along with municipalities including Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig, help fund the task force.
Law enforcement officers strongly support the program.
J.D. Hays, director of public safety services for Steamboat Springs, said the program is useful to the point that, if proposed cuts happen, he could argue for each local law enforcement agency to help fully fund the program. Hays, however, does not think the cuts will go through.
"I would do everything I could to keep this task force together," Hays said.
Others don't agree that GRAMNET is an answer.
The Oak Creek Town Board voted two years ago to stop the town's $2,000 contribution.
And some defense attorneys who have represented clients investigated by GRAMNET say that GRAMNET is a waste of taxpayer money.
"I think GRAMNET has had no effect at all on the drug issues in our local community," attorney Ron Smith said.
That controversy extends to the national level, he said.
"We've had the war on drugs for many years, and there are more illegal drugs now at a lower cost than there have ever been," Smith said.
In the presentation to county commissioners, GRAMNET representatives reported the task force has made more than 50 drug-related arrests in the 2003-04 fiscal year. Those arrests happened in Grand, Routt, Moffat and Jackson counties.
Of those arrests, 24 related to marijuana, 18 related to methamphetamines, seven related to cocaine, and four related to other drugs.
It was not specified whether those arrests were for misdemeanor possession or more serious charges.
Also during that period, GRAMNET got thousands of grams of drugs off the streets. Removing drugs can happen through seizing or buying them.
Almost 3,000 grams of marijuana were removed, about 2,000 grams of cocaine were removed, and almost 2,000 grams of meth were removed.
GRAMNET's budget for that period was about $450,000. Next year's budget is expected to be about $377,000.
About $208,000 of those funds come from local-government matches. Most law enforcement agencies provide a local match through funding part of one task force officers salary and benefits.
GRAMNET's budget-tightening began with changes in state laws that stipulate funds from assets and forfeitures now go to other departments.
Because of that change, GRAMNET had to request additional funds from participating law enforcement agencies. In Routt County, the additional funds were about $5,000.
Now, the task force is facing the possibility of further cuts in federal funding, as proposed in President Bush's 2006 budget. Eventually, agencies could be asked to pay a larger portion of the task force officer's salaries.
Benefits of GRAMNET
GRAMNET offers an efficient solution to combating drug use, Routt County Sheriff John Warner said.
"It's one of the most effective uses of the taxpayers' dollars," Warner said. "It's a coordinated effort to combat illegal drug use. I believe we're doing a good job, and that's got to be evident by the amount of drugs that we've taken off the street."
Before GRAMNET, the area had what Warner calls a "five-year fix." Every few years, the police department and Sheriff's Office would hire an undercover person to find drug dealers. The undercover person would work for six months to a year, and end up with a lot of cases filed.
But then that person would go away. GRAMNET operates every day, every year.
GRAMNET also is more effective because task force officers have authority throughout the region, said Craig Chief of Police Walt Vanatta.
A police officer, however, typically only has authority in the city in which he or she is employed. That means that if Craig police officers try to make a drug buy in Steamboat Springs and something goes wrong, they would not necessarily have authority to act, Vanatta said.
GRAMNET also is better at working up the drug chain to the bigger dealers, he said.
He also said that GRAM--NET provides a lot of resources, namely federal dollars to match local contributions, which allow it to do larger drug-enforcement investigations.
Craig and Moffat County are facing huge growth in the use of methamphetamines, he said. Meth is largely responsible for a 270 percent increase in drug violations that Moffat County has experienced since 2001, he said. "Without that team effort, we would have such a fragmented approach to drug enforcement that, if you think we have a problem now, it would just be dramatically increased," Vanatta said.
Hays said GRAMNET has fostered more cooperation among law enforcement agencies in the region. It's the most cooperation he's seen in the 25 years he's worked in the area.
It isn't possible to stop all drug use, Hays said. Any time GRAMNET busts someone dealing or using drugs, there is someone ready to step in and take that person's place.
"The goal is to make a statement and to basically say drugs are not going to be tolerated in our community, and if you violate the drug laws, you're going to get arrested," Hays said.
Hays said that people can debate the philosophies of how to decrease illegal drugs. The bottom line is that law enforcement has the task of enforcing the law.
"It's a violation of the law, and we enforce the law," Hays said. "We don't just enforce the laws that are popular."
Not everyone thinks GRAM--NET is a good use of public funds.
The town of Oak Creek no longer contributes $2,000 annually to the program. The Town Board voted to stop the contribution about two years ago because it couldn't tell exactly where its contribution was going, Mayor Kathy "Cargo" Rodeman said. GRAMNET has not approached the town again, she said.
She said she worries that GRAMNET does not respect people's rights. During the Town Board's discussions about funding GRAMNET, cases came to its attention in which people's homes were searched, and items were taken but never returned, she said. Some items were returned after the town's prodding.
"I don't like people busting in with black garb and their faces covered and guns ... and then not making any arrests," Rodeman said.
Smith said that, in general, enforcement agencies similar to GRAMNET are not an effective way to deal with the drug problem. Rather, he supports looking at the drug problem as a health issue for which treatment should be provided.
GRAMNET and other similar groups often take the position that the "ends justify the means," he said.
Public Defender Sheryl Uhl--mann said that, from her experiences representing people investigated by GRAMNET, some task force officers may "sort of bend the rules to catch somebody, and they will sort of target people who they think are drug users.
"I think that they overreach on a kind of regular basis, and they do this 'ends justify the means' -- which is not OK -- and tend to trample on people's rights when they do so," she said.
She could not give specific examples because she cannot talk about her representation of particular clients, she said.
But, she said the drug busts on the Steamboat Ski Area gondola early this ski season, which GRAMNET participated in, were an "outrageous" waste of taxpayer money.
She said GRAMNET spends a lot of time focusing on smaller drug users and arrests people for smaller charges such as having drug paraphernalia.
"They think that the ends justify whatever means they tend to use, and I think that the legal process should be cleaner than that," Uhlmann said. "They should be expected to follow the law, just like my clients are expected to follow the law."
Kris Hammond, an attorney who also has defended clients against drug charges, agreed.
"They don't have to answer to the voters at all," Hammond said. "That's how you get these cowboy operations they engage in, because there's nobody to call them on the carpet and say, 'You guys are screwing up.'"
Hays disagrees with those opinions and said if GRAMNET officers ever bent rules, that would come out through the court system.
Kevin Miller, assistant special agent in charge for the Denver Field Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which administers GRAMNET, echoed that.
"It's obviously the wrong perception. We are all law enforcement officers enforcing the laws, and we have guidelines and regulations that we have to abide by," Miller said. "That's what we do. We're not out there to violate people's rights, we're out there to enforce the laws by every legal means that we can."