Sheriff’s office explains drug enforcement efforts

Published 9:16 am Thursday, July 9, 2015

Leader photo/TED YOAKUM The Cass County Sheriff's Department discusses how it is cracking down on drug abuse within the county.

Leader photo/TED YOAKUM
The Cass County Sheriff’s Department discusses how it is cracking down on drug abuse within the county.

While impossible to eradicate the problem completely, deputies with the Cass County Sheriff’s Office remain dedicated to their struggle against drug trade and drug use amongst its residents — even as people discover new methods of abusing illegal substances.

Sheriff Joseph Underwood, Undersheriff Richard Behnke and senior deputies with the department discussed the ways that the county department handles drug enforcement with the community Tuesday night at a combined meeting the Cass County Republicans and Tea Party, held at the Cass District Library in Cassopolis. In addition to their presentation, the officers fielded questions from around 20 people attending the meeting that evening.

Drug enforcement has been a heavy priority for the Sheriff’s Office for many years, Sheriff Underwood said. Detectives with the sheriff’s office, along with those from the Dowagiac Police Department, comprise the Cass County Drug Enforcement Team, a special drug-busting task force that was formed by a county millage in 2004.

“Our team is very, very active,” Underwood said. “For our size, it’s one of the most active in the state.”

The team is one of the few in the state of Michigan that is comprised of both county and city police officers, Underwood said.

“We work well together,” he said. “We train together, we put on programs together. It’s very important we do those types of things, because we’re a small county, and we depend on each other for resources.”

One of the major tasks the drug team has taken on since their formation is cutting down on the manufacturing of methamphetamine, which has been a problem in Cass County for years. The fact that much of the county is comprised of rural areas has made the area attractive for meth dealers, said Kevin Cook, a detective with the sheriff’s office.

“They’ll make it out in areas where there’s not a lot of population, because it smells so bad when they make it,” Cook said.

Relying heavily on tips from the community, the county has made a significant dent over the years in finding meth labs and arresting those responsible for creating and using the substance. Law enforcement has also worked with local health agencies to help rehabilitate meth users, which can be a significant challenge due to the highly addictive qualities of the drug.

“If they [meth users] don’t change their environment or make new friends, they’re going to be right back at it,” Underwood said.

Due to the efforts of the drug enforcement team and the harsh punishments imposed by Cass County judges for meth related crimes, the manufacture of the drug appears to be on the decline within the county, Detective Cook said.

Arrests for the manufacture and possession of marijuana have been on the rise in recent years, though, due in part to people violating the tenets of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act. The law limits people from growing more than 12 plants per household, as well from possessing more than 2.5 ounces of the processed substance at one time, Cook said.

“[Growers] get greedy,” he said. “Instead of their plants for themselves and their 2.5 ounces, they may end up with a plant that give them 6 or 7 ounces. They don’t really want to throw away 4.5 ounces of marijuana when they can sell it, from anywhere from $800 to $2,800 an ounce.”

Abuse of Heroin, prescription drug and other narcotic substances has become a larger issue locally as well, though most of the heroin brought into the county is manufactured the South Bend area, Cook said.

With so many challenges facing the department, the sheriff took a moment to thank the county residents for their support throughout his 23 years of service as the head of the county law enforcement agency.

“All of things that we do come as the result of the community’s support,” Underwood said. “Without the community support for our programs, and our community taking active involvement with those programs, we couldn’t do the things that we do.”

Following the presentation, the officers led the community on a public tour of the Cass County Jail facility.