New drug task force aims to curb county’s illegal narcotics trade

VALE – Local police are in the process of creating a five-member task force to combat the growing use of illegal narcotics in Malheur County and expect to deploy the group later this spring.
The make-up of the task force is still being determined but officials confirmed police from the Oregon State Police, the Ontario Police Department and the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office will serve full time.
Police officials hope the new task force will make a difference in what has evolved into a growing community problem.
While no hard statistics are available regarding the number of illegal narcotics entering the county, anecdotally police believe the county is awash in banned substances, especially fentanyl and methamphetamine.
“We have a lot of drug use sales and manufacture and that leads to a gang problem, homicides and impacts the homeless population,” said Lt. Mark Duncan, Ontario station commander for the Oregon State Police.

Duncan said illegal narcotics are being shipped into the county at an unprecedented rate.
“We used to get a couple of grams of meth or heroin and that was kind of a big deal. Now we are dealing with pounds – 10 pounds, 15 pounds,” said Duncan.
Sgt. Bob Speelman of the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office said the illegal narcotics scenario locally is “the worse I have ever seen in my career…bigger than what people think.”
The illegal narcotics business creates problems for the whole community, said Duncan.
“Drugs are a direct nexus to property crimes, personal crimes, overdoses, homelessness and mental illness,” said Duncan.
Brian Wolfe, Malheur County sheriff, said one of the priorities of the task force will be to shut down trafficking routes into the county. He said illegal drugs are “readily accessible.”
“I don’t know where or who but I am fairly confident you can buy it in Ontario, Vale, Nyssa or Jordan Valley,” he said.
Wolfe said illegal narcotics have permeated deeply into the county.
“There are people dying of fentanyl overdoses in Malheur County,” he said.
Wolfe said last year a 2-year-old boy in Vale nearly died when he accidently ingested a pill laced with fentanyl.
Now most police carry Narcan, the brand name of naloxone, a medication used to reverse an opioid overdose. That’s because police are encountering more people who have overdosed and are in danger of dying.
“We use it fairly often,” said Wolfe.
Dave Goldthorpe, Malheur County district attorney, said a drug task force was disbanded several years ago.
One goal, he said, of the new task force will be to focus on those moving drugs into the county.
“The purpose of the task force isn’t to go after people who are using drugs but to go after people bringing them in,” said Goldthorpe.
In the past such an effort paid off, he said.
“When we put the resources and effort into it we can take care of distributors and get them off the street for a good length of time,” said Goldthorpe.
He said, though, a few major arrests can create the impression police have ended the trafficking.
However, he said, “the problem comes back.”
The state’s decision to decriminalize personal use amounts of drugs under Measure 110, the absence of an active drug task force and the rapid circulation of fentanyl create a growing challenge, he said.
“Those things created the perfect environment for drug dealers to come in and feel comfortable,” said Goldthorpe.
The cost of the task force will be shared by the state police, Ontario police and the sheriff’s office with some money slated to come from federal sources.
The task force will also work closely with police agencies in Idaho.
“Once this thing gets going it is my hope it will have such great success that, politically, these other agencies will want to put guys on the team and it will be an interstate team because there is so much movement between Idaho and Oregon,” said Duncan.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

HOW TO SUBSCRIBE – The Malheur Enterprise delivers quality local journalism – fair and accurate. You can read it any hour, any day with a digital subscription. Read it on your phone, your Tablet, your home computer. Click subscribe – $7.50 a month.