Drug Task Force Officer-In-Charge Discusses Ongoing 'Demand' For Methamphetamine In Jackson County
Cartels Now Providing Much Of The Supply
TUESDAY, JUNE 11, 2019
Nearly 30 years ago, Dan Cummings pulled over a car on 40 Highway and observed “all this stuff in the back seat.” The Independence Police officer suspected the driver wasn’t being honest when he claimed to have been stripping floors.
“But I couldn’t prove any differently,” recalls Cummings, “so I let him go on down the road.”
What imprinted this brief encounter in Cummings’ memory?
A few days later, he pulled into the garage at the Independence Police Department (IPD) as two Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents “were lining up all this stuff.” When he asked them what they were doing, their response stunned Cummings: “This is a meth lab.”
Cummings still shakes his head—all these years later. “That was the same stuff I saw in the back seat of that car. I had a meth lab in transit, but it was so new back then I didn’t know what it was.”
He underwent an intensive education in methamphetamine. He trained at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., did double-duty working for both the Jackson County Drug Task Force and a DEA clandestine group tasked with shutting down drug labs, and strived throughout the 1990s into the 2000s to significantly reduce meth production in Independence—and the entire county.
The results were impressive. In the ’90s, dozens of meth-lab busts—sometimes more than 100 in a single year—would be made annually. During the last decade, that number has dwindled to only about a half-dozen local labs per year needing to be put out of business.
In 2019 major drug dealers rarely attempt to set up their meth labs inside Jackson County. Yet, “Methamphetamine is still our No. 1 problem,” says Cummings.
From that night 30 years ago on 40 Highway, through the remainder of his Independence Police career, to his ongoing service as Officer-In-Charge of the county’s Drug Task Force—a role he stepped into in 2013 after his IPD retirement— Cummings has been “in the thick of the meth craze in Jackson County.” The following is an interview with him about the county’s continuing struggle to shake the “methamphetamine capital of America” moniker Rolling Stone branded it with in 1998.
If the Drug Task Force, local police departments and federal authorities were so successful at breaking up meth labs in the ’90s—to the point few local labs remain in operation inside the county today—why is methamphetamine still Jackson County’s top drug problem?
Law enforcement here…. We created a vacuum. We were working 24/7 trying to take care of the meth labs that were all over the county. We thought we were doing the right thing, and we were. Now you don’t have to worry so much about houses blowing up in your neighborhood because there’s someone in there running a meth lab. For the most part, we’ve eliminated that as a public safety issue.
But due to all the addiction to methamphetamine, the demand for meth is still here.
And who has stepped in to meet this demand?
The Mexican cartels saw the demand in this area for methamphetamine that was created by all the meth labs in the 1990s. We in law enforcement cut off the local supply. The Mexican cartels stepped right in to fill the void. And they have just dumped methamphetamine on Kansas City, Jackson County and the whole Midwest.
The Mexican cartels were entrenched in trafficking drugs in the 1980s and 1990s, transporting them from South America through Mexico and into the United States. They were the FedEx and UPS for the Columbian drug lords.
But now the Mexican cartels aren’t buying from someone else and then re-selling. They grow marijuana just south of the border and now in states in the U.S. where it is legal. They can grow poppy flowers and make heroin. And they can produce methamphetamine in super labs they’ve set up on the opposite side of the border.
They are no longer the middlemen for the South Americans. They are making their own meth and heroin, and they are selling it here.
“They have just dumped methamphetamine on Kansas City, Jackson County and the whole Midwest.”
» Jackson County Drug Task Force changing with the times as dealers relentlessly pursue making money feeding others' addictions.
» Effects Of Using Meth can be devastating on on person's long-term health, changing brain structure and function.
NO LONGER PRIMARILY A "HOME BUSINESS" — A lot has changed since this 1997 New York Times article described the Jackson County Drug Task Force's efforts to shut down meth labs that the newspaper described as being mostly "mom-and-pop operations." Dan Cummings described to the Times finding "several jars of meth in the freezer next to the children's popsicles." Today, according to Cummings, now Officer-In-Charge of the Task Force, Mexican cartels are operating "super labs" to produced most of the meth being sold in Jackson County.
The ingredients in meth have ranged from ether and paint thinner to drain cleaner and battery acid. What are the cartels putting in the meth they’re making?
Anytime we seize or recover anything we send it to one of our labs. A couple of years ago, we send this stuff in—and this looks like some of the best methamphetamine that we have seen—and it comes back as 102% pure.
I call the lab director and say, “I’m an old cop and not too good with numbers, but I do know 100% is supposed to be the maximum.” She tells me of all the methamphetamine that they’ve tested over the years, there’s a bar that has been set, an industry standard for 100% purity. She goes, “This is exceeding the bar. This is raising the bar on what we thought in the past was pure methamphetamine.”
That doesn’t mean it’ll be that pure when it is being sold to a drug user, right?
When you get down to the lower level dealers, it’s no longer pure methamphetamine. They’re going to cut it with something else. They’re going to try and get two ounces out of each ounce of meth they’ve bought. At the street-level, a 50-50 blend is considered a good hit.
But if you are buying directly from a Mexican cartel member, the drugs you buy are not to be cut before you sell them to the next person. If I’m with a cartel and you buy from me, then cut the drugs before you sell them, that reflects badly on me.
So the cartels are concerned about quality control?
They are worried about their reputation. Now the cartels know further down the line the drugs they sell are going to be cut. But it had better be further down the line. If I am buying directly from the cartel, their attitude toward me is going to be, “you’re the face of the cartel and if the stuff you sell is bad, we’re going to come after you.”
The cartels pride themselves on operating like businesses with production quotas, supply lines, wholesale distributors. But, when you remove that façade, they’re gangsters, running what can literally be a cut-throat business.
In Mexico, there is a lot of bloodshed—one cartel fighting another for control of these drug trafficking routes into the United States. This far into the U.S., you don’t see the cartel rivalries and as much of the violence that goes with them. Up here, you’ll have members of two different cartels just going about their business. Up here, it’s all about making money.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have issues. These cartels have rules, and they enforce them ruthlessly.
We arrested 15 guys in one operation a few years ago, involving a major wholesale drug buy. We got everyone from the ground level all the way up to the top guy here in Jackson County who had a direct line to Mexico. Well, during this investigation, there was a guy in the middle who just disappeared.
Our undercover knocked on the door at the shop where this guy had been working and asked, “Hey, where is Julio?” And nobody in that shop would talk about it. Later, he asked one of them again, and he was told a truckload of guys just pulled up and grabbed Julio, then drove off.
When we arrested this whole group, the U.S. Attorney set up interviews with all these guys having their attorneys present. We started asking about Julio. They all said the same thing: “He started using the drugs he was supposed to be selling. They kicked him out. We don’t know what they did to him. We didn’t ask.”
In the 1990s, shutting down all these meth labs was mostly a local endeavor. The cartels operate on an international level, so more of the Jackson County Drug Task Force’s investigations are now joint efforts involving federal officials, the FBI and DEA. Do you have situations in which you have to tell the feds they may be focused on the big international picture, but we’ve got to shut down what they might consider a small-time operation that’s doing damage in a particular neighborhood?
We talk about getting the head of the snake because if you only chase the tail that’s all you’re going to do.
But all these “little people” we’ve got here in Jackson County, they are, from our local perspective, major drug dealers. They may be dealing a pound of meth a week. That’s about 450 grams, going for about $195 a gram.
When I first started with the Task Force back in the 1980s, the FBI would go days without returning our calls. Now they will send someone right out if we think we’ve got a case to hand over to them.
At the same time, they understand we have to worry about the local impact—that we have to stop these “little people” from dealing drugs in our neighborhoods. A pound a week… That’s a big problem.
Ideally, we have a situation like we did about a month ago, when we indicted eight people here in Kansas City, but the FBI was able to get the guy they were buying from in California.
In one day, we took all those people off the streets here, plus the guy out in California. The FBI is still carrying the investigation on from there.
So, you have seen the “meth craze” evolve from local dealers and addicts making their own methamphetamine to Mexican cartels becoming the chief supplier. Is there any end in sight?
Law enforcement alone is not the answer. Law enforcement can’t eliminate the demand. We need prevention and treatment to reduce the demand. We in law enforcement will keep trying our best to reduce the supply.
But you really can’t arrest your way of this, and I am not interested in putting in jail people who are addicted. They need treatment. In some families, meth addiction has just gotten passed down from one generation to the next. We’ve got to get them help.
I want to get the bad guys who exploit addiction, who make their money off it, who hurt people.
“Law enforcement alone is not the answer. Law enforcement can’t eliminate the demand. We need prevention and treatment to reduce the demand. We in law enforcement will keep trying our best to reduce the supply.”