K-9 units making a difference in drug trade across county

Drug-related deaths are down this year compared to last year but are still occurring, and the Columbiana County Drug Task Force (DTF) needs the public to be its eyes and ears.

Task Force Lt. Brian McLaughlin told the crowd gathered at the community center in East Palestine last weekend there have been eight drug-related overdose deaths so far this year, and in most cases, victims are just "chasing a high."

There were 18 reported overdose deaths last year. Deaths happen when drug users build up a tolerance to their drug of choice and end up taking more to achieve the sought after high, or when they go to a different dealer who may be selling a drug with a varying degree of purity, he said.

Drugs with a heavy presence in the county, including East Palestine, are methamphetamine and heroin, he added.

McLaughlin showed the crowd how to recognize a "one-pot" meth lab, which is pretty common in the county. Any suspicious looking liquids in Powerade, Gatorade or two-liter pop bottles should be treated with caution, as those are used for cooking meth, and as they cook continue to swell.

The process consists of mixing chemicals and other ingredients together in a container. A one-pot meth lab that is not cooked properly can "flash" or explode, resulting in injury.

A rolling meth lab uncovered by police on West Taggart Street in June consisted of two pop bottles that were found behind one of the seats of the vehicle driven by Devaughn Pastore, of East Main Street, McLaughlin said.

"One actually flashed when we picked it up," he said.

People found in possession of meth or tools to make meth can face felony charges under the Ohio Revised Code. Those charges are elevated if the person is near children or a school, he noted.

Local meth prices range from $20 to $50 for a "rock," $100 for a gram and $800 to $1,500 for an ounce, he said.

With heroin, the addiction usually begins with pills, and in some cases marijuana.

"Pills on the street don't come cheap, that's why people move to heroin," he said.

A user can buy .03 grams of heroin for $20, or spend $250 for a gram. In 2004 the DTF confiscated almost 1,300 unit doses of heroin in the county, McLaughlin said, and around 2005 helped confiscate about 36 grams from a home in Chester, W.Va.

"There is not a spot in this county that does not have a lot of heroin. We're infested," he said of Columbiana County.

Drugs confiscated in large amounts are taken to Heritage Thermal Services in East Liverpool for disposal, he added.

Ways to combat the drug problem are reporting any suspicious activity as soon as possible.

"No one has more than 30 friends show up at one time and don't stay longer than five minutes," he said, referring to behavior that is typical of drug deals. "Report what you are seeing to us."

Other signs to look for are rolled up gum wrappers, which can contain drugs, or torn sandwich baggies. Also, if items come up missing from the home, that can indicate a drug habit.

"The theft with this stuff is through the roof," he said.

The two-hour drug presentation and K-9 demonstration was held at the East Palestine Park and was organized by the East Palestine Masonic Lodge as part of its effort to educate the public on drug use.

"It's not just any community, it's all communities," Robert Sedgwick, who serves as the Lodge's worshipful master, said, regarding drug use and its effect.

He said drug use education was "put on the back burner" for a while when government agencies became more focused on dealing with terrorism, but he is pleased to see it is becoming more prominent, and also said he believes every law enforcement agency in the community should have K-9 units.

East Palestine Sgt. Don Johnson said that once K-9 Toney joined the local police force he realized just how much he and other officers missed over the years as far as confiscating illegal drugs, and not because they did not know, but because in some cases it was difficult.

With Toney's keen nose and skillful training, officers now have more pull when it comes to confronting people believed to be in possession of drugs, he explained.

In order for a police officer to search a person or vehicle believed to have drugs, they must first have probable cause. In Toney's case, alerting to a drug upon a single sniff is enough to warrant that cause.

Before, even if officers believed a vehicle contained drugs, if no evidence was in plain sight, a search was not done.

Johnson said he has heard that some drug dealers stay away from East Palestine simply because they don't want to come in contact with Toney, a three-year-old Belgian Malinois.

Detective Alan Young of the Columbiana County Sheriff's Office said his two-and-a-half year old German Shepherd, Jesy, has alerted to enough illegal drugs over her six months in service she has "practically paid for herself."

Toney and Jesy cost roughly $7,000 and $13,000 each, including training, and donations covered a majority of that cost.

"The dogs are coming into more and more popularity and they are very valuable tools," Young said.

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