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Compassionate Approach Makes Sense to Tough-Minded Sheriff

November 10, 2019

A self-described conservative law enforcer with a high national profile gave a Cocaine, Meth & Stimulant Summit audience concrete examples of initiatives his department is implementing for a more treatment-focused approach toward lower-level drug offenses.

“We believe in restoring the humanity to law enforcement,” Pinal County, Ariz. Sheriff Mark Lamb said on Saturday after showing a news video of a department officer attending the baby shower of a woman he had arrested multiple times and who subsequently found recovery.

Lamb's office has been featured prominently on the A&E series “Live PD” and “60 Days In.” While his talk at the conference ended up focusing largely on how his department is addressing the demand side of the drug issue, he did not shy away from strong views on the supply challenges facing his community, wedged between Phoenix and Tucson.

“I live in Arizona—we have a border crisis,” Lamb said, adding that about 40% of the drugs that end up somewhere in the nation arrived first across Arizona's border with Mexico. He criticized politicians who he said “fail us year after year after year” by not sufficiently addressing border security.

But his talk was titled “A Second Chance,” and Lamb discussed numerous ways in which the department is working to reduce recidivism and to open pathways to recovery for drug-affected offenders:

  • The Sheriff's Youth Redirection Program is a pre-arrest initiative to help young people who have gotten into trouble or are referred by a loved one, involving class hours on goal setting, social media, career development, and drugs and alcohol. “The key is the interaction with law enforcement,” Lamb said.

  • Under the Angel Initiative, residents can seek help for a substance use problem through the Sheriff's Department without fear of arrest. “At first I didn't give it my whole heart,” Lamb said, but he pointed out that seven people have found referral to treatment through this effort thus far.

  • A Housing Unit for Military Veterans (HUMV) has created group camaraderie among jail detainees with a military background. Only five of the more than 80 individuals who have gone through the program have reoffended, Lamb said.

  • Other efforts have included separating young offenders ages 18 to 25 from the rest of the jail population, and using inmate welfare funds for a tattoo removal program that can rid inmates of painful reminders of their past.

Lamb said Pinal County's jail population has dropped from around 720 when he first took office to around 500 now, and it's not because the county has stopped arresting people.

View from Customs

Preceding Lamb's talk, conference attendees heard an update on national trends from Stephen McConachie, chief operations manager for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. McConachie said that even with record seizures of drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine in fiscal 2019, there is much room for improvement. He guesses that only 5 to 10% of the drugs entering the country are being caught at the border (with “border” being a flexible term that also includes airports, seaports and shipping hubs).

McConachie presented several nuanced views of current drug threats. Having recently visited China, he said the Chinese government has been highly cooperative in working to stem the flow of fentanyl. He bristles when he hears someone refer to the country as the source of the problem, saying instead that it is the presence of trans-national criminal organizations operating in China that should be highlighted.

He made several clarifying points about fentanyl, including dispelling the notion that all “synthetic opioids other than methadone” in national drug data are fentanyl (other compounds in the category are causing overdose deaths as well, he said).

McConachie also expressed concern that a number of countries, including the U.S., easily could become the next key suppliers of relatively easily manufactured fentanyl. “I know it's being produced here,” he said.

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