State funding for a countywide drug-fighting task force will end after Dec. 31 because of budget cuts, leaving local law enforcement officials hurrying to form a regional unit to combat drug trafficking problems.
The state Department of Justice announced this week that it is ending its involvement in two-thirds of California’s 52 drug- and gang-fighting task forces next year. Larry Wallace, chief of the department’s Division of Law Enforcement, told The Associated Press the state will keep running 18 task forces using federal money.
“We were really disappointed that we lost our funding,” Pismo Beach police Chief Jeff Norton said.
Between $300,000 and $400,000 of state funding each year paid for supervision, training, rent for a facility to house the task force and other expenses.
Individually, San Luis Obispo County’s police departments and agencies don’t have the resources to run a full-time narcotics unit, according to Norton.
“To combine our resources,” he said, “is the best way to combat drug trafficking in this area.”
Each law enforcement agency involved in the task force — which includes the police departments in Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Grover Beach, Paso Robles, Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo and the county Sheriff’s Office — covered the cost of their personnel involved in the program. Or, they simply contributed funding. Morro Bay is not part of the task force.
Other agencies involved in the task force include Cal Poly University Police Department, state parole, the county probation department and the county District Attorney’s Office.
The Department of Justice started the task forces in 1976 to coordinate state, federal and local law enforcement efforts, according to the AP. The county has partnered with the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement for the past 35 years.
Sheriff Ian Parkinson has agreed to lead the effort to form a new task force that could become a hybrid of two units — a narcotics unit and a gang task force — that exist under the Sheriff’s Office.
The department had participated in the countywide narcotics task force but also had its own unit, which is staffed with about the same number of people, Parkinson said.
He is hoping to grow the size of the sheriff’s gang task force and form a partnership with the narcotics unit so the two can collaborate and share resources more effectively, at no additional cost to local agencies.
“Drugs and gangs are often related in cases, and this is an opportunity to grow the gang task force at the time of this merger,” he said.
Over the past year, the countywide Narcotics Task Force has been involved in several high-profile cases, including the arrest in May of 13 men who authorities said were involved in a drug-trafficking operation.
Nine of the men were arrested on federal charges of conspiracy and distributing methamphetamine. The majority were allegedly linked to two gangs that have been working together to distribute drugs across the Central Coast.
In another case that became controversial in the county, the task force arrested 15 people on various allegations of possessing and selling marijuana.
The case raised the question about what types of drug enforcement activities the task force should be focused on and encapsulated the debate about what law enforcement, citizens and medical marijuana advocates believe is allowed under state law.
In January, prosecutors decided not to file charges against three people because of insufficient evidence. An update on the other cases was not immediately available Friday.
Parkinson said he’s been pushing the state attorney general’s office to define state law on medical marijuana. Recent efforts by federal authorities to crack down on medical marijuana dispensaries and landlords have made the issue even murkier.
“I think it’s growing in complication, and I think it’s going to continue until some decisions are made on really, what is the law,” Parkinson said. “I don’t have a simple answer for it because any case that comes up we’re going to investigate like any other crime, and if we feel like it is illegal we’re going to take action.”
In the past two years, he said, there have been more than a dozen home invasion robberies and two homicides directly related to medical marijuana.
Wallace, of the state justice department, told the AP that unless the state’s budget picture changes, the department will lay off about 170 agents and 25 to 30 civilian employees next year. Task force managers will be among those affected, although longer-serving employees have seniority and could land in other jobs.
Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.