More OSP presence also sought on area drug task forces
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, pledged Thursday to Medford’s police chief and the Jackson County sheriff he would push for more federal resources to combat drug trafficking in the Rogue Valley.
Wyden said he would press the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for more resources targeting those responsible for bringing in hard drugs such as fentanyl.
“Central to my work as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee … is we have to have more resources,” Wyden said at Medford City Hall. “This part of Oregon shouldn’t have to be hunting for DEA agents like it was a scavenger hunt.
“We deserve a fair share of those personnel, and I’m going to insist on getting them,” Wyden added.
The press conference downtown followed what Wyden described as a “very candid” meeting with local leaders in the criminal justice system, including Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler, Medford police Chief Justin Ivens and Medford Mayor Randy Sparacino, who retired as Medford police chief in 2019 after a 27-year career in law enforcement.
The efforts toward stepped-up federal prosecutions follow similar efforts at the state level. Gov. Tina Kotek announced a planned Oregon State Police Strategic Enforcement and Disruption Initiative focused primarily on fentanyl.
Ivens said that talks with OSP started Wednesday discussing ways to bring the state agency into Jackson County’s two multi-agency drug task forces: the Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement task force or MADGE, and the Jackson County Illegal Marijuana Enforcement Team or IMET.
MADGE is comprised of resources from Medford police, the sheriff’s office, Jackson County Community Corrections, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Homeland Security Investigations Division and the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office. IMET is comprised of resources from Medford police, the sheriff’s office and the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office.
Ivens said the conversations with the state are in their early stages, but the chief said he believes the agency is making a sincere effort to add troopers, detectives and other resources to MADGE and IMET.
“I’m confident in the conversations that I’ve had with folks from OSP that they are looking into that,” Ivens said. “Hopefully we’ll see those resources sooner rather than later.”
Ivens said at the press conference that greater DEA involvement is needed.
“I appreciate you recognizing that Southern Oregon needs help, as well,” Ivens told Wyden. “It’s not just Portland.”
Sparacino said that addressing the drug crisis “goes beyond the state level,” and that local law enforcement needs help from the DEA to investigate major drug cases crossing state lines and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland “to actually prosecute these large-scale fentanyl cases.”
“That’s where the federal government can actually help us out,” Sparacino said.
Wyden called the request a “very legitimate request to beef up prosecution.”
“It’s just unacceptable for people who’ve been in law enforcement for years and years in Southern Oregon to say, ‘I can’t remember the last time I saw somebody from DEA involved in one of those major kinds of efforts,'” Wyden said. “That’s what I’m going to be trying to turn around at the federal level.”
Wyden said that DEA representatives attended the Thursday morning meeting, and that he will hold them accountable based on what he heard from local law enforcement.
“We had DEA people here, we had DEA people there, and I asked for answers by next week,” Wyden said.
In addition to pressing the DEA for more resources locally, Wyden said he is exploring new federal legislation targeting those bringing large quantities of drugs into the region.
As a potential starting point, Wyden described using his work in the 1980s passing the Armed Career Criminal Act as a model for new legislation targeting drug traffickers. Wyden was an Oregon congressman when he sponsored the bill passed with bipartisan support in 1984, which added mandatory minimum sentences for those with a history of violent crimes and serious drug offenses found to be in possession of guns or ammunition when prohibited.
The Armed Career Criminal Act, however, is just one potential starting point, the senator said.
“This is a different time, and it may take a different kind of model,” Wyden said. “What I heard from the professionals in the field is they would like a sort of tougher approach with respect to prosecution focusing on the worst offenders.”
Although internationally based drug trafficking organizations garner the most headlines, Wyden said he received “very valuable information” from local law enforcement about strategies for going after “non-cartel traffickers.”
“We have a lot of visibility about big cartels, but they made the point that non-cartels can be a big problem particularly up and down the West Coast,” Wyden said, adding that drug traffickers often use Interstates 5 and 84 as main arteries.
Wyden also said he is interested in pursuing an idea floated by Sickler to use federal funding to cover drug treatment for jail inmates.
“There are some rules that date back quite a long period of time, but I’m going to be looking at that,” Wyden said. “It’s a Medicare and Medicaid area — I’m chair of the Finance Committee — so I’m going to be looking at that.”
Reach reporter Nick Morgan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 458-488-2036.