A panel of law enforcement officers, school superintendents and other justice system officials met at Highlands University Wednesday afternoon and discussed responses to a surge in local drug use for about three hours. The panel was formed at the invitation of Mayor Louie Trujillo to help figure out where resources could be allocated and to hear comments from the broader community. Several care providers and social workers from local treatment programs were present in the audience and also provided input.

“We are not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” said Eric Padilla, a major with the Las Vegas Police Department. “We deal with a lot of individuals with substance abuse issues and mental health issues. We need to have resources for these individuals so we can push them that way, to help them.”

Padilla went on to speak about the department’s efforts to develop a Law Enforcement-Assisted Diversion Program, commonly known in other communities with such programs as LEAD. LEAD programs allow officers to refer individuals accused of minor drug crimes to rehab programs instead of incarcerating them. Since a LEAD pilot program was launched in Santa Fe in 2014, successful programs have been started in Bernalillo and Rio Arriba counties.

“For some of these people who are picked up for larceny or drug paraphernalia or arrested for shoplifting at the dollar store or Walmart, we can divert these individuals into treatment and avert the whole process, flooding the court system with cases,” Mayor Louie Trujillo said. “We’re hoping we can get this LEAD program going to where we avoid a felony on their record.”

According to county Sheriff Chris Lopez, 33 percent of his department’s case load involves narcotics enforcement. He currently has two full-time positions dedicated to narcotics offenses in his department. However, he points to lapel camera laws as making it difficult to do undercover enforcement.

“It’s making it extremely difficult for us to continue to move in terms of really dealing with the problem, and really dealing with those individuals that are at the higher levels that are dealing this poison to our community,” Lopez said.

The county sheriff’s office is also working on securing funding for an addiction treatment facility located near the state Behavioral Health Institute. Between initial grants and discretionary funds from the state legislature, the project has already secured approximately $2.5 million. According to Lopez, San Miguel County has assumed responsibility for running the facility and is building partnerships with local agencies to get it opened. 

Christopher Gutierrez of the West Las Vegas Schools and Larryssa Archuleta of Las Vegas City Schools were present to speak about the impact of drugs in school and what steps they saw necessary to protect students.

“It just seems that it [drug use] gets younger and younger every year,” Gutierrez said. “I believe now, during summer program, we had a fourth grader that we caught in the bathroom with a vape. So the trend, we just see it happening younger, and younger, and younger. And as the DA stated, we all have it—we all have it in our families, we all know somebody.”

Archuleta is focusing more on building community and home health to prevent people from getting into drugs in the first place.

“The key is, it’s good that we have these reactive measures of how we’re trying to deal with people when they get there, but I think the majority of us should focus on preventative measures,” Archuleta said. “Students are getting this [into drug use] sooner because they’re coming from these homes. We’re teaching them what they need to do, but many times it’s very difficult because they’re going back into these environments. So the preventive measure of helping to strengthen the family unit is where we’re going to go.”

District Attorney Tom Clayton reiterated his office’s commitment to pursuing enforcement of drug laws, especially in cases of narcotics use and dealing.

“They tell me, well, you know, ‘drugs is a nonviolent offense. Why are you so hell-bent against these guys?’ Quite honestly, it’s bulls***,” he said. “The user that overdoses, ask his mom or dad when they have to go to the ER, and hopefully has Narcan so he survives—ask the parents who actually bury their children, because they overdose on heroin—ask victims of homicide, ask any of the victims of these crimes if that’s a nonviolent offense. The answer is going to be, absolutely not.” 

For the county detention center’s part, Warden Antonio Padilla spoke about efforts he’s taken to combat drug use inside the jail since he began the job six months ago.

“I’ve seen a drastic change in the amount of contraband going into the facility,” he said. “We’ve tripled the amount of shakedowns we’re doing inside the facility. We’ve beefed up security when it comes to receiving people into the facility.” 

However, law enforcement officers and District Attorney Clayton also discussed problems with keeping those accused of drug crimes locked up, pointing to state-wide bail reforms that were added to the state Constitution in 2016. 

“If we do not establish flight risk or danger to the community, that individual will be released,” Clayton said. “Then we as the community said, ‘well wait, I just arrested him and before I even finished my report the guy’s already back in the street.” 

Additional restrictions on who could be detained due to the COVID-19 pandemic further complicated law enforcement efforts. Panelists also pointed to other mental health issues caused by pandemic social restrictions that threaten community health.

“What we have seen is more violent crimes, which I think has a lot to do with people being locked up [due to the pandemic], and more suicides” San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said. “The drug problem is really amplified. Addiction is really amplified, the problems we’re having in the justice system, it’s really amplified the lack of an ability to hire people.” 

Members from the local mental health community pointed out a total lack of care providers or people recovering from addiction present on the panel.

“It’s great to see you all standing up there, looking at each other, but I think Sheriff talked about how this is a three-pronged approach, with education, treatment and law enforcement. I don’t see a treatment provider up there at all,” said Breena Tafoya, CEO of Kids Counseling, a local agency providing mental health treatment for kids.

The mayor commented that he had invited “a couple of providers,” along with a person recovering from addiction, but that none were available to make the panel. He apologized and said he should have tried harder to make sure people representing those viewpoints were available to provide input.

“It’s very clear to me that there’s still a stigma around drug use, and I consider it an illness,” Trujillo said. “I don’t see the adjudication portion of it. I see a sick person who is trying to get well, and I think we as a community need to realize it’s an illness. It’s not just an act of will.” 

Clayton summarized what the actionable steps that he thought had come out of the meeting.

“It’s providing resources to address the narcotic trafficking, which means narcotic agents,” he said. “At the city level and the county level we need actual people out there engaging with narcotic traffickers, hopefully in a kind of covert operation, undercover operation.” 

Mayor Trujillo points to more collaborations between agencies as an important next step, including rebuilding a drug task force or rejoining the New Mexico Region IV Narcotics High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force, which is led by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

“There’s been a lot of disconnect between agencies lately, so with the new opportunities with a new police chief, we’re going to repair all those fences and all those relationships. I’m going to try to have a meeting next week to work on the enforcement portion of it [the drug crisis].”

For those trying to break out of the cycle of addiction, numerous local resources are available. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has a toll-free hotline that refers people to local recovery resources at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). The Rio Grande Adult Treatment Program provides intensive outpatient rehabilitation and can be reached at 454-9611. There are also daily, free Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous support meetings held at the Sala de Madrid at 801 University Ave. Citizens who would like to report potential drug trafficking activities to local authorities can call the LVPD’s drug tip hotline at 425-8884.

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