Whatcom County judge, Bellingham detective discuss local drug crime trends

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 23, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - Drugs play a role in about 80 to 90 percent of felonies committed in Whatcom County.

That was one of the main takeaways from a talk, "Dealing with Drugs and Crime: On the Streets and in the Courts," hosted by the Bellingham City Club on Wednesday afternoon, April 23, at Northwood Hall.

Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder and Bellingham Police Sgt. Keith Johnson spoke about recent local drug trends, like the resurgence of methamphetamine, before fielding questions from the audience of about 150 people.

Snyder, who presides over the county's drug court, briefed the crowd on the successes of that program. For the past 15 years it has served as an alternative to jail for many addicts facing nonviolent felony charges. Graduates of the program must agree to treatment, random urine tests and weekly check-ins with the judge for a minimum of one year.

According to Snyder:

-- Drug court services cost taxpayers about one-quarter as much per day as housing an inmate in jail.

-- Of those who finish the program, about 24.5 percent reoffend; those who drop out re-offend at a rate of 40 percent; and 66.7 percent of drug offenders outside of the program go on to commit crimes in the future.

-- More than 325 adults have graduated from the county's drug court in the past 15 years.

Six more people will graduate at 2:30 p.m. Thursday in Snyder's courtroom. It's open to the public. "Bring some Kleenex," Snyder said. "I guarantee you, it'll be a tearjerker."

Sgt. Johnson, one of three detectives on the city's Special Investigations Unit, sometimes busts street dealers but tends to focus more on large-scale operations. Lately, he said, meth and heroin have posed the most serious threats to public safety. Meth labs have been all but wiped out in Whatcom County, but shipments continue to come in from huge labs in Mexico, according to Johnson.

Hard drugs have obvious negative consequences for the user, but in the end police want to prevent the property crimes and violent crimes people commit to support their habits, he said.

"Most of the vehicle pursuits we get into" - for example - "are people high on meth, and they get crazy," Johnson said.

If citizens want to help stop drug crimes, he said the best thing to do would be to call the cops and report any suspicious activity. But don't be a vigilante.

In the question-and-answer period, the audience prodded Johnson about his personal views on new recreational marijuana laws. He's against legal pot, he said, because accessibility will lead to more widespread use and people being "less motivated."

"And I think on the whole, that's not good for society."

Snyder, as a judge, has limitations on what he can say in public about issues that could come before him in court. But he toed the line by pointing out that many of the people he sees in the adult felony courts started drinking alcohol and smoking pot at a young age.

"To me," Snyder said, "I think when we're talking about marijuana being legal, my main concern is what about people who are young?"

A City Club presentation in June will focus on drug treatment. Check bellinghamcityclub.org for more info.

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