JEFFERSON – A delegation from the Trumbull Ashtabula Group (TAG), a law-enforcement task force comprised of members from the Ashtabula and Trumbull County Sheriff's Offices, prosecutors and law-enforcement agencies in both counties, made a report to the Ashtabula County Board of Commissioners on March 7 – highlighting areas where they've succeeded and challenges posed in the uphill fight against drugs.
TCSO Detective Capt. Jeff Orr, the TAG commander, and Detective Greg Leonhard made their report to the board during a work session and at the invitation of Commissioner J.P. Ducro.
TAG's fight against heroin and methamphetamine in both counties is an uphill one, according to Leonhard.
“In 2016, there were more meth labs in Ashtabula County than anywhere else in Ohio,” Leonhard said. “But what we're seeing now is a giant leap in crystal meth from California. Backyard meth is more expensive than the stuff they're bringing in.”
Orr said the importation of high-potency methamphetamine from out of state is a move by drug cartels to switch users from heroin, which has immediate and powerful withdrawal effects, to methamphetamine, which has comparatively few.
Heroin is still, despite those recent efforts, a serious and growing problem.
“I don't think we've seen anything in our history like what we're seeing now,” Leonhard said. “By April, 2016, we'd seized more heroin in Ashtabula County than we had in 2015 in Ashtabula and Trumbull Counties – and we spent less for it.”
The way forward, according to Leonhard, is greater cooperation between TAG and local law-enforcement.
“If Trumbull and Ashtabula County are going to find a solution to this drug problem, it's not going to be because of grants,” Leonhard said. “We could build a 300-bed jail and I'm certain we could fill it up. We need to do things better, more efficiently and with more partnership between agencies.”
Orr highlighted contributions from Geneva and Conneaut to the ranks at TAG, with one officer from each department on loan at least part time.
“But it's not just the cities we need to work with,” Leonhard said. “When we started having a heroin problem here, we heard more about it in Orwell than we did in Ashtabula.”
TAG is currently comprised of four deputies from the Trumbull County Sheriff's Office, one from the Ashtabula County Sheriff's Office, two staff members and several part-time officers loaned from local law-enforcement who are tasked with going after medium-to-high level traffickers.
TAG does go after some low-level users, though, for use as confidential informants and to make controlled drug buys from dealers. TAG makes between $40,000 and $50,000 in controlled buys in Ashtabula County each year, according to Leonhard.
Orr said TAG is funded by a U.S. Department of Justice grant, as well as an Ohio Department of Public Safety Drug Law Enforcement Grant.
The federal grant began at $450,000 in 2002, but has tapered off to between $65,000 and $66,000 per year. The state grant pays for staffing and the balance is covered by asset forfeitures during court proceedings, according to Orr.
“We can't consistently rely on that,” Orr said. “We have a reserve fund of several hundred thousand dollars and we sustain ourselves with that. It takes somewhere between $800,000 and $1 million each year to fund TAG.”
Leonhard said TAG did not currently need Ashtabula County to pay anything more, but did ask the commissioners to help facilitate relations with local law-enforcement as well as local schools.
“We do drug education and prevention as part of our mandate,” Leonhard said. “I am nothing more than a fly at a picnic to dealers, but I want to be a nuisance. Psychological warfare is part of this.”