While St. Johns County, just like much of the rest of the country, continues to adjust and respond to the opioid epidemic, authorities find themselves still battling the other drugs that have been around for years.
“Combating the drug problem is a moving target,” St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan told The Record on Friday.
“Certainly marijuana, powder cocaine and crack cocaine has never left us,” he said.
In early December, Lt. Ryan Smith, who heads up the Sheriff’s Office’s Special Investigations Unit, which handles drug investigations, said he and his team were spending about 60 percent of their time on heroin and opioid investigations, with 40 percent being devoted to “everything else.”
Within three days of him saying that, his detectives served a search warrant on a house and found “a large amount of drug paraphernalia, crack cocaine, powder cocaine and morphine pills,” according to a Sheriff’s Office news release.
They arrested two men on charges ranging from possession of paraphernalia to the manufacture of crack cocaine.
Since then they have raided two more houses and arrested six others on various drug and weapon charges including possession of marijuana, possession of crack cocaine with intent to sell, possession of a prescription drug without a prescription and possession of MDMA.
That mixed bag of drugs is what Cmdr. Lee Ashlock with the St. Augustine Beach Police Department says his officers are still seeing on the street. A look back at that last few months of reports coming out of his office, shows that officers continue to see pills, cocaine and methamphetamine, including a November arrest of a woman found to be in possession of a variety of prescription drugs and 7.5 grams of methamphetamine that police said was packaged in six separate bags.
“It pretty much really runs the gamut,” Ashlock said of the arrests he has been seeing.
The one thing he said he doesn’t see as much as they used to is arrests for single batch or “one pot” methamphetamine production.
Ashlock didn’t have hard numbers immediately available, but said he could recall the days not too long ago that the Sheriff’s Office meth lab team would get called out pretty routinely. That doens’t happen like it used to, he said, leading him to think the methamphetamine is getting produced in larger batches.
That is exactly what Mulligan said the Sheriff’s Office has experienced and it is indicative of the shifting nature of fighting drug problems.
Nearly the same time that authorities were cracking down on those in the county producing the small batches of methamphetamine, investigators were growing aware that the supply of the drug was changing.
It has changed now.
“It’s coming across the southern border and they are producing so much of it,” Mulligan said.
The reason, he explained, is that because the U.S. has managed to crack down on the “precursor” chemicals needed to produce the drug, it is now pretty difficult, and expensive, to get significant quantities of them.
“It costs less to buy it (meth) than it does to make it on their own,” Mulligan said.
While Mulligan said Smith’s estimate of a 60-40 percent split between opioid cases and other drugs was likely right back in early December, the recent search warrants and associated arrests for cocaine and other drugs means the split might be shifting back the other way a bit.
That’s not necessarily indicative of an emerging trend, like the opioid epidemic, he said.
Instead the recent busts are again evidence of the “fluid” nature of the problems.
Those search warrants, he said, were predominantly the result of investigations begun after members in the surrounding communities lodged complaints about the addresses and suspected drug activity.
Those things happen, Mulligan said, and need to happen, even when the larger share of the attention is being directed at the heroin and opioid problem.
“It has certainly caused us to spend a lot of resources in manpower,” Mulligan said of the ongoing epidemic. “That doesn’t mean we aren’t continuing to work the other problems as well.”