Task Force: Drug Wars

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Task force fighting crack up north, meth in south

By John Howell Sr.
Panola County Drug Task Force officers most frequently encounter marijuana and cocaine during their investigations, but, “the problem we’re seeing is crystal methamphetamine,” task force commander Mark Whitten said.

Whitten spoke during a November meeting of Batesville Exchange Club, providing an overview of the operation of the six-person unit that concentrates on enforcement of drug laws.

Four of the people are task force agents, 75 percent of whose pay comes from a federal grant. Two additional deputies of the sheriff’s department are assigned to the task force, Whitten continued.

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“My goal is to make the task force self-sufficient,” Whitten said, citing seizures of cash and property forfeited under drug laws that allow the proceeds to be returned to county coffers. He said that 250 cases in 2010 led to the seizure of $100,000; 223 cases to date in 2011 have brought in $85,000.

The task force commander recited the list of items needed to make methamphetamine, including lithium, lye, lantern fuel and other, less caustic ingredients. The key ingredient is pseudoephedrine, contained in the Sudafed cold remedy. Responding to lobbying from law enforcement and public health officials, the Mississippi legislature has changed the state’s drug laws to now require a prescription to buy Sudafed.

Sudafed and other pseudoephedrine-containing products are still legally purchased over the counter in Tennessee, prompting many road trips to Tennessee counties by Mississippi meth producers in search of their key ingredient. But most Memphis pharmacies, Whitten said, are members of MethCheck, a service that “connects law enforcement with (a) pharmacy’s PSE (pseudoephedrine) log data electronically and in real-time,” according to the web site of the company that developed the MethCheck LS software.

Now, when a Mississippi resident purchases pseudoephedrine in Tennessee, “Within four seconds, I know it,” Whitten said.

Meth makers now use a condensed process known as “shake and bake,” to produce their product, Whitten said. The method employs a plastic drink bottle for mixing the volatile, potentially explosive ingredients and replaces the larger kitchen or “Nazi labs” formerly used to make meth.

“People on crystal meth can stay up for three days without a wink of sleep,” Whitten said. Meth users’ teeth are often rotted and their fingernails are often either gone or black, he said.

The product is highly addictive, Whitten continued. “I’ve yet to see anybody get off crystal meth.”

While crystal meth abuse is predominant in the southern part of Panola County, cocaine is a greater problem in north Panola County.

Crystal meth abusers are usually white, the officer continued, while crack cocaine abusers are usually black.

“Nothing racist about it, that’s just the way it is,” Whitten said.

Drug investigations are often interwoven with other crimes, especially burglaries, he continued.

Purchases of drugs during task force investigations usually involve a confidential informant who agrees to cooperate in the face of criminal charges facing him or her. Once an arrest is made, investigators try to keep working their way to sellers of larger volumes of contraband.

“Sometimes, it takes time,” Whitten said.

After an arrest leads to a successful conviction, either through a guilty plea or court trial, officers may soon see the target back in town after serving only six months, because of sentencing guidelines that allow early release of non-violent offenders.

“Most of them go back into business,” Whitten said.

“I can proudly announce that we are working hand-in-hand with the Batesville Special Operations unit,” Whitten said, responding to a question from Bobby Baker about cooperation among jurisdictions.

The cites of Batesville, Sardis and Senatobia were originally members of a joint task force. Batesville later formed its Special Operations Unit to concentrate on drug enforcement.

Whitten said that though the two entities are separate, they are cooperating and may rejoin in the future. “I think that’s going to happen,” the task force commander said.