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Cass drug millage up for renewal Aug. 7

Published 6:31pm Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Cass County voters will be asked Aug. 7 to renew for the second time a half-mill of property tax which funds the Drug Enforcement Team shared by the Sheriff’s Office and Dowagiac Police Department.

Sheriff Joseph Underwood and Chief Tom Atkinson initially obtained the mill in 2004 to combat a growing narcotics problem.

Previously, Cass County participated as the smallest partner in the Southwest Michigan Enforcement Team (SWET) with Berrien and Van Buren counties. Voters in August 2008 renewed the levy, which costs the owner of a $200,000 home $20 a year.

The millage supports six investigators — three from each department — a road deputy, an assistant prosecutor, clerical support, treatment, disposal of old prescriptions, education and, increasingly, methamphetamine lab clean-up.

“We’re responsible for all of Cass County. We don’t spend our time in Dowagiac,” said Det. Sgt. Dave Toxopeus.

While citizens are skeptical about winning the national war on drugs, Toxopeus replied, “We can win it here in Cass County. We’ve taken 619 guns off the streets from drug dealers.”

One hundred and nine operational meth labs have been located and dismantled in the past four years. A recent bust in Vandalia bust found four “cooks” at one house.

In 2009, authorities raided Escape Reality, an adult entertainment business on Pleasant Lake in Edwardsburg, charged dancers with prostitution and drug distribution and took the liquor license away. The property was ultimately donated to a church.

Toxopeus said the drug team provides educational programs to 4-H, Scout and church groups because they volunteer to clean roadsides for community service projects.

“You shake a six-month-old one-pot lab, and it starts putting out hazardous gas. We tell them what to look for and what to do if they find one.”

Forfeiture funds from property seizures provide two school resource officers.

Child Protective Services has been involved in 74 cases CCDET investigated. In 36of those cases, 78 children were removed from their homes. In 38 cases, 91 children were referred to the Department of Human Services.

Toxopeus said 96 pounds of marijuana and $98,000 cash were confiscated with cooperation from federal officials from a safe house for the Mexican cartel, which was visible from the Dowagiac police station.

In 2011, a truck carrying 450 pounds of marijuana from Elkhart, Ind., to Grand Rapids was stopped in Marcellus. A 60-year-old woman was caught north of Dowagiac selling prescription medication to an 18-year-old.

Drug team investigators also provide back up for major crime investigations, such as homicides and bank robberies.

It costs $1,000 to $2,000 to clean each meth lab. There have been 1,297 cases opened and 979 people arrested. The street value of narcotics seized exceeds $6.4 million, plus $180,000 in cash and $757,000 in property.

The yearly average is 185 cases, 140 arrests and seizure of almost $1 million in narcotics, $26,000 in cash and $107,000 in property.

Medical marijuana and synthetic marijuana compound the drug team’s challenges, but 96 percent of those arrested plead guilty without going to trial.

“The drug team has never lost a jury trial,” Toxopeus said.

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