Drug enforcement funding in question


The push has begun to get the state to pick up another $2 million in costs to fund the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency because the federal government says it’s cutting off its funding of the program in March of next year.

The federal Justice Assistance Grant currently being used to fund the anti-drug task force here and in states across the country is being cut and changing its focus. Funding for 2005 in Maine is down close to $900,000, to around $2.4 million, and $530,000 of that is being given directly to cities and towns for local and county programs.

To fill that hole this year, the state Department of Public Safety is cutting other programs once funded by the federal money and giving everything but the direct grants – now out of its control – to the MDEA.

Come March of 2006, there will be no federal money for MDEA, public safety officials warned the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety last week.

That will mean the elimination of 28 state drug agents, six prosecutors in the state Attorney General’s office and a program where 19 full- and part-time local officers work in coordination with the state MDEA to prosecute drug offenses.

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Cantara said the options are to lobby Washington to restore the cuts, charge drug offenders higher fines to help pay for their prosecution or look for other funding sources.

Rep. Patricia Blanchette, D-Bangor, co-chairman of the public safety committee, called the federal grants program a “crutch … and maybe the crutch is wearing out.”

She asked Cantara to figure out “what it would cost the Department of Public Safety to fund in its entirety this drug force,” in the state budget, adding this upcoming biennial budget probably wasn’t the place to start. Her hope was the funding could be found to get the program through the end of 2007.

Aroostook County District Attorney Neale Adams, chairman of the Maine Justice Assistance Council, which advises how the JAG money should be spent, agreed that reliance on grants was a mistake.

“They’re sporadic; they change with the (political) wind and they come with all kinds of conditions depending on the policy de jour,” he said, adding the better way is for the state to include the MDEA in its budget.

“Support MDEA properly and adequately from the general fund,” Adams told the committee, warning it was a “pay me now or pay me later” scenario because drug crimes are going to grow in frequency and in the level of violence if the drug problem is left unchecked.

What happened?

The warning signs have been on the wall, as the federal government changed the focus of its anti-drug efforts, merged grant programs, and then President George W. Bush cut funding for the state task forces in his proposed budget. More than 40 states operate such programs.

“The spin is that these programs have not demonstrated effectiveness in reducing crime,” said Roy McKinney, MDEA director. “That’s just plain bunk.”

McKinney pointed to statistics that show in the last year the MDEA conducted 850 investigations, which translated into 720 arrests, not including another 126 where the MDEA assisted. The greatest number involved cocaine, followed by marijuana, prescription drugs and then heroin.

A town-by-town breakdown in the 2003-2004 MDEA annual report shows the highest number of arrests was in Portland with 112. Locally, the report says South Portland had 8; Westbrook 1 and Windham 2.

In that year, the MDEA’s total budget was $3 million. That included $857,600 in state general revenue funds; around $1.8 million in federal funds, the biggest chunk being the JAG grant; and $325, 800 in special revenue from seizures of drug-related assets.

The money pays for 28 officers belonging to five regional task forces covering all 16 of the state’s counties. Those officers came from local departments, but their salaries are covered in the MDEA budget. There also are 13 officers assigned full-time by local police departments to assist the MDEA. Their base salaries are paid by their own departments, but the MDEA trains and coordinates them and pays them the difference between their regular salaries and state police pay. There also are six part-time officers from local departments charged with sharing information with the MDEA and coordinating activities when appropriate. Their salaries are paid by the local departments.

Local departments that either sent officers to work directly for the MDEA or participated in the assistance program last year included South Portland, Westbrook, Windham and the Cumberland County Sheriff’s office.

The direct grants being funded by the JAG money this year include $158,263 for Portland and Cumberland County; $17,736 for South Portland and $20,692 for Westbrook. These grants will not go directly to police departments, but rather to cities and towns to use for drug treatment and prevention and community policing.