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June 6, 2004 - The Tampa Tribune (FL)

Aggressive Drug Crackdown Draws Criticism From Locals

By Bill Kaczor, Associated Press

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

BONIFAY - A crackdown on methamphetamine in Holmes County has not received unanimous acclaim there or in some nearby communities, authorities say.

Sheriff Dennis Lee and his deputies have arrested more than 700 people and raided 76 clandestine laboratories since February 2003. Holmes ranked second only to nearby Bay County in taking down labs across Florida last year, according to federal Drug Enforcement Agency records.

"We've had a lot of people criticize us for putting so much effort into the drug problem," Lee said. "Some people believe if people want to use dope in their own house that they should be left alone to do it regardless of what the consequences are for the rest of the neighborhood."

He attributes that attitude at least partly to history.

"During the Depression this community tolerated moonshine because money was hard to come by," Lee said. He said that many "didn't feel like marijuana was any worse than moonshine."

Lee this year is facing re-election opposition in the Democratic primary from Tim Brown, a former deputy. The winner will face Republican Jim Whitaker. Neither challenger opposes the meth crackdown, but Brown criticized Lee's conviction rate as too low.

Chief Deputy Eddie Ingram replied that about 90 percent of meth defendants are convicted but the overall rate is lower because of plea bargaining by prosecutors that drops or reduces many charges.

Lee praised antimeth efforts in neighboring Jackson and Walton counties and nearby Bay County but he wouldn't discuss details or offer an opinion on other nearby communities.

"I've got to live with them," Lee said.

Ingram wasn't so reticent, saying he has heard some sheriffs and other officials say they don't have a meth problem or that cracking down will cost too much.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent supervisor Ed Hudson said he didn't think sheriffs are ignoring meth but that smaller counties have to be selective because of limited resources.

DEA records show Washington County, which borders Holmes on the south and is slightly larger, had five meth labs cleaned last year at federal expense. That compares with 23 in Holmes.

"We don't have the volume of problem as they have had in Holmes County," Washington County Sheriff Fred Peel said. "They have made an issue of it there and we just haven't."

Peel disagreed with an assertion by Ingram that the heat being put on meth in Holmes is driving some labs into nearby counties.

Sheriff Johnny Daniel of Jackson County, just east of Holmes, said he also has less meth activity than Holmes but cannot explain why. DEA records show four labs cleaned in Jackson last year.

With more than twice the population of Holmes, Jackson has greater resources, including a four-member narcotics team, Daniel said.

He agreed that some meth cooks are moving across county lines, including a couple from Holmes who drove their motor home to Jackson where they were arrested.

Geneva County, Ala., bordering Holmes on the north, has battled meth for more than a decade. Deputies there raided nearly 100 labs last year and about 40 so far this year, said Tony Helms, commander of the sheriff's drug task force.

Helms said he thinks some of Holmes' meth activity may have moved there from Geneva instead of the other way around.

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