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Proposed federal cuts to trafficking prevention catch eye of local lawmakers, law enforcement

By WILSON R. HARVEY

The Exponent Telegram

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — As local police agencies continue their fight against the spread of drugs in the area, a potential thorn is prepared to sidetrack their efforts.

According to a document obtained by The New York Times, the White House’s proposed federal budget for 2018 includes significant cuts to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, or ONDCP. According to the document, these cuts would slash the budget of ONDCP by 95 percent, or $356 million, leaving only a $24 million allotment.

Under the scope of the ONDCP are various programs meant to curb the use of illicit drugs, including the Drug-Free Communities Support Program and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) designation program. The latter distributes funding on a county qualification system.

Although the proposed budget is on a federal level, if passed, it will have a direct impact on local law enforcement — both Harrison and Monongalia counties are designated to receive funding from HIDTA, and a number of southern West Virginia counties also qualify for funding disbursed through the program’s Appalachian division.

For that reason, West Virginia lawmakers and law enforcement officers alike are paying attention to the potential cuts.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who works to help West Virginia counties receive the HIDTA designation and to procure funding for the Drug-Free Communities Program, said the administration’s proposed cuts are too drastic to stand during a crucial time in the fight against addiction.

“The Office of National Drug Control Policy plays a major role in coordinating federal efforts to combat drug abuse and addiction,” Capito said. “We cannot drastically cut important programs that are helping communities fight back. Now, more than ever, we need every resource available to help our local law enforcement and community prevention efforts.”

U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., who noted his advocacy for increasing HIDTA funding and helping various counties, including Harrison, receive the designation, spoke strongly against cuts to the program.

“In the midst of a drug epidemic ravaging our communities, we should not be taking valuable resources away from anti-drug efforts,” he said. “Reclaiming our streets from drug traffickers is a key component to addressing the opioid crisis, along with education, prevention and treatment.

“The HIDTA program has been a useful resource for law enforcement in communities across West Virginia and the entire country. We have been strong advocates for the program in the past and will continue to support it in the future,” McKinley said.

Local law enforcement officers seemed to have a measure of unease regarding the potential cuts, but made clear to note a continued dedication in the area to drug policing.

“Anytime you’re cut, it’s just that local dollars will have to be used instead of federal dollars,” Harrison Sheriff Robert Matheny said. “I know the funds that filter down, they really help us in what we try to do.”

There is a clear impact on a national level from the HIDTA program, based on information from the Obama Administration’s 2017 Budget and Performance Summary.

In the “Companion to the National Drug Control Strategy” published in December, it listed successes of HIDTA initiatives, including over 2 million kilograms of illicit drugs removed from the marketplace in 2014 alone; and over $1 billion in cash or non-cash assets were seized in such initiatives during the same year. Nationwide, nearly 27,000 investigations received analytical support through the program in 2014.

According to Matheny, Harrison County’s designated funds from HIDTA primarily assist in funding overtime pay for two positions — a Greater Harrison Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force deputy and a handler on the K-9 team. Some other services also fall under the umbrella of those funds.

The stipend, Matheny said, is helpful, even though it is not enormous.

“It’s not going to stop the efforts,” Matheny said of the possible discontinuation. “We might have to reappropriate funding or reprioritize, but I don’t think it’s that significant. But we certainly would like to see it continue, because it helps the local taxpayer.”

The most significant impact would likely be on those counties directly funded by HIDTA. However, other members of law enforcement in the region say their counties would not go unaffected.

“We’re not directly involved in that,” said Buckhannon Police Chief Matt Gregory. “However, there is an indirect impact. Obviously, the issues with drugs are not isolated to a particular jurisdiction; it is a region-wide and statewide problem that doesn’t know any boundaries. Any effect in one area would directly affect the others.”

Lewis County Sheriff Adam Gissy said in his county, law enforcement would not be directly affected.

“It’s not going to have any adverse effect on Lewis County,” he said, “because we receive zero money from the federal government for drug eradication.”

However, he did agree with Gregory in noting the likelihood of the fallout to trickle down to non-funded counties, due to the fluid nature of drug trafficking.

“It’s very possible,” he said regarding whether the cuts could impact trafficking in Lewis County. “I’ve always considered Harrison County a nexus point for drug distribution, and with them losing federal funding, there will be less investigations, I assume, due to just less manpower.

“The cut in funding will have an impact on those counties, and that could have an adverse impact on us,” Gregory said.

He said that in his career, he has seen the good that can be done for law enforcement through the HIDTA program.

“I definitely think it’s a positive,” Gregory said. “It’s a very proactive approach to combating the drug issues in our areas, and there’s been a lot of good work that’s come out of it.

“I know that the funding provides resources, both manpower and equipment, to address these issues. A significant cut of that magnitude would have a large effect on operations,” he said.

However, Gissy said large-scale funding decisions won’t deter local enforcement from getting the job done, despite potential difficulties.

“I would hate to think it would come to that, but I’m sure that if that money is cut, Harrison C ounty and Lewis County will step up to the plate,” he said. “We’ll still do our job and remain proactive in our efforts.”

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