Methamphetamine seized at a March drug bust in Price.
There is a hidden, parasitic economy in Carbon County and it is sucking away lives and livelihoods from the productive side. It is the economy of drugs.
Rather than focus on the individual risks of substance abuse - the "Your Brain on Drugs" and "Just Say No" campaigns have already done that - the Sun Advocate decided to take a look at how the problems of a few are affecting all of us in dollar terms.
Two agents from the Carbon County Drug Task Force gave some details on the situation. The Task Force focuses on long-term investigations in drug-related cases. They have both seen what's going on at different levels of the drug trade, and they don't want to be identified.
First of all, the drugs - illegal or prescription - are here. That's no surprise since this is nationwide and not only a county problem. "It's perceived in all communities in this country and we are no better or worse than any county our size," commented one of the agents.
So what does that mean to Carbon County and other rural communities in dollar terms?
Pain pills at $80 a pop
That is tough to determine, given that dealers and users don't publish annual financial reports. It is possible, however, to calculate the cost of one pill or one drug buy and multiply to get a rough idea. For example, the agents said the going street price for an 80 milligram dose of Oxycontin is $80. That's basically more than a day's pay at minimum wage, or a pretty good chunk of cash out of a better-paying job.
That's $80 that the user will not spend on legitimate goods and services, which means it is money that Main Street in any town here won't see. Whoever is making the major profits will spend the money somewhere, but the high-end profits generally go elsewhere. The ordinary street dealers of any drug don't make much. "They'd be better off getting a real job," said one of the agents.
That $80 pill can arrive on the street in several different ways. It can be smuggled across the borders from Canada or Mexico, where prescription drugs are cheaper.
It could have originated in this country and been burglarized out of someone's medicine cabinet. Burglars do watch for signs and listen for news of someone who has had an operation or has some other reason to be on pain killers.
It could be bought at a pharmacy with a prescription. That means the either the user or dealer is either paying out-of-pocket, or using insurance or social program payments to offset the cost, the agents said. So now taxes and insurance premiums are affected to some extent, although it is not possible to put a firm dollar figure on that.
Heroin on the rise
The task force agents did say that doctors are being "very cautious" when prescribing pain medications, making it more difficult but not impossible to get the stuff by either faking symptoms or getting prescriptions from more than one doctor. They said they have busted one 70-year-old who was augmenting his income by selling prescription pain killers he bought legally but didn't need.
The progress curbing the illicit pain-pill supply has produced one undesirable but economically predictable side effect: heroin use appears to be on the rise. Heroin and Oxycontin, as depressants, have similar effects on the central nervous system, the agents explained. A balloon of heroin goes for about $30 on the street, versus the $80 for the 80 mg. of Oxycontin.
With heroin comes needles, and with needles come the risks of HIV and hepatitis A and B. Those are added social costs in terms of medical care.
Then there is the cost of law enforcement and court expenses.
One crime leads to another
At the recent "Meet the Candidates" forum, Sheriff James Cordova declared that drugs are the number one law enforcement problem in Carbon County. He said that the jail is routinely holding more than the 87 inmates for which it was designed. The majority are in for drugs, or drug related crimes. (Alcohol, a mind-altering drug, is included in this.)
Anyone can access the court calendar of Seventh Judicial District Court to confirm this. The web site http://www.utcourts.gov/cgi-bin/cal/display.cgi?fn=12 has a list of all scheduled appearances for the next two weeks. It gives a glimpse of the percentage of cases taking up the court's time, the law enforcement case load and the County Attorney's time.
County Attorney Gene Strate estimated that roughly 80 percent of his and his staff's time is spent prosecuting drug and drug-related crimes.
Many if not most of these cases involve crimes beyond drug possession. Burglary, bad checks, theft and assorted other crimes will often be listed along with drug offenses on the docket.
"There is a definite correlation between the drug trade and other crimes," one of the task force agents confirmed. "The stronger the addiction, the greater the impulse," the other added.
A dose a day adds up
Kaylum Paletta, a youth counselor at Four Corners Behavioral Health, explained that the drug-crime link is forged in two basic ways. First there are people who get hooked on drugs and will turn to other crimes to support the habit. Second there are criminals who already show antisocial behavior and wind up doing or dealing drugs because that is part of their established pattern.
How the judicial system treats these issues is the subject of the next story in this series. Drug Court, a special branch of the district court, will be the subject. Cordova's opponent in the election, Robb Radley, agreed that drugs are indeed a problem and that the drug court program is showing success.
To the basic costs already outlined, add to that the expense that taxpayers carry through the Division of Child and Family Services. Previous stories have quoted that one of the major causes of family breakups and domestic violence result from drug abuse, including alcohol.
The cost of one dose a day for each user adds up.