Cops and courts contend with a growth in meth-related crimes
Despite a high-profile seizure of 18 pounds of crystal methamphetamine (or “ice”) by federal authorities last month, Guam Police Department Chief Joseph Cruz said in a Nov. 23 media briefing that the island’s overall drug issue would land at about a 4 or 5 on a scale from 1 to 10.
The November seizure had an approximate street value of $4.6 to $5.6 million, according to Cruz.
Although those figures are alarming and may remind residents of the “War on Ice” in the 1990s, “usage [of the drug] has definitely come down,” said Cruz. Still, Cruz called for “a new or revised version of the War on Ice campaign…”
In 2015, the year for which the most recent statistics are available, just over 42 thousand grams of methamphetamine valued at $31.1 million were seized, according to the Citizen Centric Report issued by the Bureau of Statistics and Plans. By contrast, about 7,800 grams of marijuana valued at $163,338 dollars were seized.
Then U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Resident Agent in Charge Michael Puralewski stated in 2015 that the ice problem on Guam was “severe and is putting the island at risk.” (Guam does not currently have a permanent DEA resident agent in charge.)
This reportedly led to an increase in the numbers of postal inspectors on island who are especially on the lookout for Priority and First-Class packages from Hawaii, California, Arizona, Oregon, Nevada, Texas, and Washington.
History of methamphetamine use
According to a Feb. 16, 1965, report in the Chicago Tribune, methamphetamine was sold in the U.S. as an over-the-counter medicine in the form of an inhaler until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner George P. Larrick restricted its sale to physician prescriptions.
In 1970, methamphetamine was regulated in the Controlled Substances Act, and a public education campaign was mounted against it.
In 1986, the U.S. government passed the Federal Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act in an attempt to curb the growing use of designer drugs such as meth.
Despite these laws, use of methamphetamine expanded from its initial base in California throughout the rural United States, especially the Midwest and South, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.
Meth long ago spread throughout the Pacific, as well.
Honolulu Civil Beat reports that Hawaii has led the country in workplace meth use, with one 2011 study showing employees there used the drug at a rate four times the national average. A September 2016 report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime found Pacific islands are increasingly vulnerable to transnational organized crime, including drug trafficking. The report states that local law enforcement agencies are “largely unable to manage territorial borders,” making Pacific islands ripe for exploitation as transit points.
“Methamphetamine and precursor chemicals from Asia…are trafficked to and through Pacific island countries en route to Australia and New Zealand, and other destinations,” said ODC analyst Inshik Sim. “There is also evidence of ‘spillover’ of illicit drugs into Pacific island countries. They do not have the infrastructure or programs to deal with illicit drug use.”
Guam Public Defender Service Corporation
While private criminal attorneys are cautious not to release information pertaining to their caseloads involving clients charged with meth-related crimes, Public Defender Service Corporation Deputy Director Richard Dirkx wrote in an email interview: “Nearly all the cases in our Drug Court arise from situations in which a person was caught in possession of methamphetamine. [Possession] is actually only a small percentage of the cases that involve meth.”
In other words, additional crimes are often committed after an individual has used the drug.
“For example, a man driving while ‘high’ will be processed as a driving under the influence case unless he actually has some of the drug, or a dirty pipe, in his possession,” Dirkx wrote. “As you might imagine, a significant number of theft, robbery, and family violence cases, as well as other types of assaultive crime, have an addiction problem as the primary causative factor, but are not considered as drug cases.”
Dirkx continued: “The drug tie-in may be obvious to those who read the police report or who speak with the witnesses, but the case itself will not be labeled a drug case, and will not become part of the statistics. This also means that the sentence is likely to concentrate on the crime that has been charged, rather than on the actual cause of the criminal behavior. My understanding is that the federal funding we receive prohibits services to certain types of violent offenders: a bitter irony when we know that irrational acts of violence are a common feature of methamphetamine use.”
According to the Unified Courts of Guam website, “in December 2005, the Adult and Juvenile Drug Courts were recognized as courts of record of the Judiciary of Guam. These programs are examples of ‘therapeutic justice,’ which focuses on rehabilitation of offenders and their reintegration into society.”
In a 2010 white paper, then National Association of Drug Court Professionals Chief of Science, Law, and Policy Dr. Douglas B. Marlowe, J.D., stated, “We know beyond a reasonable doubt that drug courts significantly reduce drug use and crime and do so with substantial cost savings.”
“The scientific evidence is overwhelming that adult Drug Courts reduce crime, reduce substance abuse, improve family relationships, and increase earning potential. In the process, they return net dollar savings back to their communities that are at least two to three times the initial investments,” according to Marlowe.
Although Chief Cruz stated in his recent press conference that “the number of arrests has gone up” for meth-related crimes on Guam some legal and probation experts on island don’t feel those cases warrant a special division within the island’s Adult and Juvenile Drug Courts to address them.
“Whether or not we establish another, or a different, ‘methamphetamine court’ isn’t as important as the fact that we do not have adequate counseling or treatment programs for people who are addicted,” stated Deputy Director Dirkx. “We need better programs both for those who are serving time, and for those who are released on probation. In the absence of adequate treatment options, there isn’t much a court can accomplish, but had we those programs, any judge could sentence any candidate to complete such a program, regardless of the underlying offense. An investment in probation officers and treatment providers will accomplish far more than opening another court.”
Assistant Public Defender Ali N. Nusbaum also doesn’t believe a special “meth court” is necessary on Guam, as there is already a drug treatment court.
“That court does not have the amount of resources to accommodate the need,” she said. “That’s an issue with grants. We need a lot more drug treatment counselors. Some of the people that get in there don’t actually get their treatment until months after their initial arrest…There’s no immediate treatment provider available. But it’s not the fault of the court. It’s not a fault of the providers. It’s just that there’s so many of these cases coming through.”
Nusbaum believes that one of the biggest factors the justice system has a difficulty addressing adequately is treatment for individuals who are arrested.
“Right now, the way it works is someone could be arrested for possession, and then they just go through the court process. And so they’re arrested, they get out, they have a court hearing and then another court hearing. Again, this is not the fault of the courts. This is just how the system is. What they really need is treatment available to them immediately. A judge cannot order treatment until a defendant has been proven guilty.”
Lani Brennan, Deputy Chief Probation Officer, stated in an email to the Sunday Post: “The Adult Drug Court Program is essentially our methamphetamine court. [It] is intended for amphetamine/methamphetamine users. All 129 drug offenders referred to the Adult Drug Court Program are methamphetamine users. The Judiciary of Guam will continue to strive to improve and expand services through specialty courts like the Adult Drug Court Program and build capacity to address these issues.”
She echoed Nusbaum’s and Dirkx’s contention that “the court system can’t solve the entire problem on its own. The community of Guam needs to build capacity for certified drug counselors. It needs to continue to recruit more counselors and therapists and train existing practitioners in evidence-based programs, strategies, and interventions that have proven to be effective in assisting addicts with early recovery skills and relapse prevention.”
Brennan’s data also buttresses Marlowe’s argument.
“The Adult Drug Court Program has a recidivism rate of 6 percent, while the traditional court has a recidivism rate of 73 percent. The data shows that the Adult Drug Court Program is successful in reducing rates of recidivism. Currently, the Adult Drug Court Program provides intensive supervision and substance abuse treatment to 129 drug offenders who were screened to be legally and clinically eligible to participate in the ADC Program. The contracted therapists that are part of the ADC Team utilize the Matrix Model as a treatment modality which is evidence-based and proven to reduce re-offense,” Brennan wrote.
Court cases and Probation
Brennan confirmed that currently the Division of Probation Services supervises a total of 664 adult drug offenders whose drug offenses are methamphetamine related.
“535 of them are supervised by the Adult Drug Unit which is a traditional program and 129 of them are supervised by the Adult Drug Court Program which is a specialty court program that focuses on treatment,” stated Brennan. “Out of the 535 who are supervised by the Adult Drug Unit, 235 are on probation while 300 are on pretrial supervision awaiting adjudication.”
Brennan stated that out of the 1,317 criminal cases were filed this year (as of December 1), 169, or 12.8 percent, were methamphetamine related.
Compared with numbers over the last three years, meth cases are increasing – which reflects GPD Chief Cruz’s statement about the increase in arrests.
According to Brennan, there were 84 methamphetamine-related cases filed in the Superior Court of Guam in 2014, 161 filed in 2015, and 169 as of November 30, 2016.
“The number of methamphetamine-related cases for 2016 has already surpassed the number of methamphetamine-related cases for 2015 and there is still one month left before the year is complete,” he wrote.
Possession of methamphetamines is generally charged as a felony, but laws regarding penalties for meth possession can vary widely amongst states. Some states offer sentence-alternatives to prison like Guam does, such as drug courts and drug-treatment centers, while others do not. Penalties will also depend on how many prior drug-related offenses the individual has, as well as the individual’s overall criminal record. However, methamphetamine possession is generally always treated as a felony, which can amount to prison time, hefty fines, and/or felony probation.
Federal law requires a minimum prison sentence of five years for possession of any amount over five grams, and a maximum sentence of 40 years. If convicted of possession of 50 grams or over, the mandatory minimum sentence is 10 years, and the maximum is life. Fines can range anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of dollars. Because meth is believed to be an extremely dangerous drug, there will generally always be a jail sentence as a result of a federal possession conviction, no matter how small the amount of the drug is actually possessed.
Clearly, the criminal justice system on Guam can offer an empathetic approach for the average user arrested on methamphetamine-related charges and processed through the Juvenile or Adult Drug Courts.
Unfortunately, a lack of financial resources means some offenders most in need of treatment may slip through the cracks.
What’s yet to be seen is whether the next Guam Legislature will focus more attention on these funding gaps and work together to find federal and local funds to combat the uptick in meth-related arrests before the problem reaches the epidemic proportions already experienced in the 1990s on island.