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By Todd South
Chattanooga Times Free Press

JASPER, Tenn. - Meth did at least one good thing for Marion County -- it taught law enforcement exactly what was needed to battle drugs, lawmen said.
That knowledge is crucial, even though busts over the past 12 years have reduced the number of meth labs in the county to a fraction of what was seen before, say detectives in the Marion County Sheriff's Department. More money, different enforcement techniques and new technology now help them tackle marijuana, cocaine and a new threat -- prescription pills.
Marion County detective Chad Johnson said the new tools worked well in September, when 14 people in Marion and Hamilton counties were arrested, accused of robbing 25 pharmacies from Knoxville to Atlanta and bringing the stolen drugs to Marion County for resale.
A federal indictment claims that the alleged ringleader, James Moon, a Marion County resident, directed the crew that stole at least 30,000 pills for resale throughout the region.

BUILDING A TEAM
A $375,000 grant in 2005 to combat meth allowed the sheriff's department to buy $40,000 drug detection scanners and other equipment. It also paid to hire Mr. Johnson, who worked with other investigators in Southeast Tennessee to build an 88-defendant case that rounded up "smurfers" -- people who travel through cities buying up pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in meth.
It was the work of Mr. Johnson through Project Safe Neighborhoods, a project of the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, that helped build cases against the suspects arrested in September.
Detectives don't have the luxury of just chasing drug dealers and traffickers, he said. They also must deal with property crimes, homicide cases and just about anything else that comes across the desk. But reducing drugs helps with other crimes, Mr. Johnson said.
"If you hit the dope biz hard enough, it will have an adverse effect on every other crime," he said.
The meth trend peaked in 2000 and began to decline once police teamed up with the 42-county Southeast Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force, detectives said. The task force shares training, information and resources on meth investigations and arrests with area police.
The Marion County department of 16 patrol deputies and three detectives built relationships with state and federal law enforcement through those meth cases, connections that have helped the investigators work other types of cases, Detective Gene Hargis said.

NEWER THREATS
Though the meth problem hasn't entirely disappeared, the detectives and Marion County Sheriff Bo Burnett say they see only a fraction of the meth they did in the past.
But as criminals and addicts shift their tastes to cocaine and pills, detectives also shift their tactics. With meth, it was arrest them, clean up the lab and make another arrest, Mr. Johnson said.
But with cocaine, pills and marijuana cases, simply arresting street-level dealers doesn't do as much good, Mr. Hargis said. Attacking organized drug rings requires investigators to take more time with low-level dealers, working on informants to go after the more powerful traffickers and leaders.
"It's like that old saying: You cut the head off the snake and it's dead; you just cut the tail and it can still bite," Mr. Hargis said.

HOW IT STARTED
When Mr. Hargis started work with Marion County in 1990, the department had a few thousand dollars in the drug fund. He and others worked mostly cases on automobile thefts and marijuana possession, Mr. Hargis said.
Then methamphetamine came to town.
"We were overwhelmed by meth," he said.
He remembers the first meth bust, on Valentine's Day, 1996, in southern Marion County. After that single arrest for meth possession, the problem exploded and the number of lab busts grew from 30 to 100 in about five years. The raids and arrests dropped sharply after the state passed laws restricting pseudoephedrine purchases.
While investigators chased down meth dealers and destroyed labs, investigations on other drugs such as marijuana and cocaine took a back seat because of the sheer amount of work meth took, Mr. Hargis said.
Compounding the problem was the drying up of drug fund money used to buy equipment and sustain long-term drug investigations. In the early 1990s, the department spent all its drug fund money and had to take a $30,000 loan from Marion County to jumpstart the fund, Mr. Hargis said.
By shifting the focus to interstate and highway drug trafficking arrests the sheriff's office was able to build the drug fund and pay for more drug work, he said. The current fund balance is $180,000, even after the department purchased four new patrol vehicles, Sheriff Burnett said.

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