Special Reports

Red Ribbon Week: Rural areas not immune to drug activity

This week, the Ledger-Enquirer has been examining drug-related problems in the Chattahoochee Valley, including crime, and what’s being done to combat these problems. Today, we look outside the valley’s largest city, Columbus, at neighboring rural areas. Which drugs are most prevalent? How is law enforcement approaching the problem?

Harris County

“We’re like most rural counties,” said Harris County Sheriff Mike Jolley. “If you’re looking for drugs you can find it. You can find it in Harris like any other county in America.”

Still, Jolley said his county, which has a growing population of about 30,000, doesn’t have the same issues as neighboring Muscogee County, and its meth traffic is not as prevalent as in some rural areas.

“We work on our drug problem in Harris County,” he said. “We used to be very rural. Now we’re more a bedroom community. We don’t have the meth problem you’ll see in rural counties.”

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office takes proactive measures to work on drug activity, Jolley said. For example, law enforcement works with students on drug awareness and prevention and Jolley’s office works closely with citizens who report issues. Jolley said once problems are identified his staff works the county aggressively.

Capt. James Price, who works in Jolley’s office, said when officers are investigating drug activity they frequently use informants or undercover officers to make drug buys. The drugs they tend to see include crack, methamphetamine and marijuana.

Price said those people who work as informants tend to come to the police. They are often in trouble and know what information police could find valuable, he said. Eventually police can build up information and make arrests, slowly taking away dealers’ customers.

“The only way you can curb it is to stop suppliers,” Price said. “That is really hard for a department like us.”

Without being able to control the drug trade completely, inevitably crime can be linked to drug use.

“Just about all your crimes come from drug activity,” Price said. “From robberies to burglaries, it’s to supply the habit of a user. Just about all our burglaries have some direct connect to someone who has addiction.”

Troup County

In neighboring Troup County, Capt. William Grizzard said he also sees the strong link between burglaries and drugs.

“They steal things for and shoplift to trade it for drugs,” he said, adding he’s seen drug users break into homes and steal a microwave and TV to trade for drugs.

Grizzard said he encourages families and friends of drug users to step in and ask for help. He said users will steal from their family and friends and then eventually steal from strangers and businesses to fuel their addiction.

The Troup County Sheriff’s Department tends to see crack cocaine and meth. Similar to Harris County, Troup law enforcement officials also try and combat the problem by making street-level buys. They also rely on Crime Stoppers for assistance.

However, Troup being to the north of Harris County puts it a bit closer to the state’s capital. The primarily rural county, which also sits on the Georgia-Alabama border, is home to about 63,000 people and is only about 60 miles from Atlanta. Grizzard said the county’s close proximity to Atlanta makes drug activity an issue.

“It’s just so easy to get,” he said. “That’s one of the problems we have being so close.”

Russell County

In Russell County, like in more urban spots, there are areas where drug cases are made repeatedly, said Lt. Heath Taylor with the Russell County Sheriff’s Office.

“We’ll get that all the way through the county, from Hurtsboro to Cottonton,” Taylor said.

Authorities have several methods of dealing with the drug problem. There’s a metro drug unit, which covers the whole county and deals with larger scale and longer term drug operations. There’s also a street-level narcotics patrol that handles the high risk spots, Taylor said.

It’s two different missions and two different ways of dealing with the problem.

Taylor’s office also uses its Web site, rcso.org, to get anonymous tips. He says he gets three to five each week, and his office checks on each one.

The drugs he sees are the same as in the city — marijuana, meth, crack and cocaine. Having more rural areas in their jurisdiction doesn’t mean they have less drugs, he said. Taylor said his county has no worse problem than any other.

And being in the “country” doesn’t necessarily make it more difficult to catch those in the drug trade, Taylor said. When people see vehicles pull up to a certain residence at all hours and stay for only a matter of minutes, that’s a clue to most anyone.

“You’ve still got to have traffic,” Taylor said of a drug house. “People call all the time with that one piece of information.”

Lee County

Capt. Van Jackson with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office has many of the same challenges as Taylor’s office. Jackson has seen people move to more rural areas for the sole purpose of making meth.

The odors produced while making the drug are pungent, and some of its makers prefer getting away from a city to avoid identification.

Jackson said his office has an aggressive approach to catching drug pedlars. Deputies are trained in identifying drug users and sellers, and they in turn speak to civil groups and others, teaching them the same techniques.

There are investigators who focus on drug crimes and Jackson’s office partners with Auburn and Opelika in its drug enforcement efforts.

In addition, the sheriff’s office has school resource officers whose jobs are teaching drug abstinence and identifying drug use.

“We all work proactively to combat those crimes,” Jackson said. “We’re going to find new avenues where we can do more.”

The drugs in Lee County are the same found in Russell County, with marijuana and meth being two of the most common, Jackson said. From time to time, people are caught with an amount of drugs that is the legal definition of trafficking. Interstates are used to move drugs and Interstate 85 goes right through Lee County.

However, deputies have training to find people who may be trafficking in drugs and Alabama State Troopers have made cases over the years, Jackson said.

“I think that success is happening,” the captain said.

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