Pubdate: Mon, 11 Feb 2002
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2002 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Fox Butterfield, New York Times News Service


Dealers Flee Cities For Safer Business In Isolated Towns

PRENTISS, Miss. -- The trophy houses, with wrought-iron gates and 
grand-columned entryways, keep popping up on little country roads here, in 
clearings in the piney woods and near doublewide trailers. Sometimes there 
is a luxury car or two in the driveway.

In the affluent suburbs of Boston, New York or Dallas, these homes might 
belong to successful doctors, lawyers or software company owners. But 
Prentiss, a small town in south-central Mississippi, has no industry or 
affluent professional class in the conventional sense. The last sizable 
factory moved to Mexico three years ago, leaving an unemployment rate of 25 

Instead, the police say, many of these houses belong to drug dealers, made 
rich by a flourishing business in crack cocaine, methamphetamines, 
marijuana and OxyContin, the prescription painkiller. They are the most 
visible manifestation of an explosion of rural drugs and crime that is 
overwhelming local law-enforcement agencies and bringing the sort of 
violence normally associated with poor neighborhoods of big cities. The 
upsurge has been felt across the United States from Maine to Oregon and 
from Georgia to Texas, even as drug use in most large cities has been 

In December, for example, Ron Jones, one of five members of the Prentiss 
Police Department and the son of the police chief, was shot to death as he 
entered an apartment to serve a search warrant for drugs. It was the most 
recent of 14 homicides in the last two years in Jefferson Davis County, 
which has 14,000 residents, giving the county a homicide rate of 50 per 
100,000. That is higher than the rates of Detroit, Washington and New 
Orleans, cities that regularly rank among the highest homicide rates in the 

Nationwide, while the rate of arrests in drug crimes has fallen 11.2 
percent in cities with more than 250,000 residents over the last five 
years, it has risen 10.5 percent in rural areas, according to the FBI.

Even more striking, from 1990 to 1999, the last year for which figures are 
available, the percentage of drug-related homicides tripled in rural areas 
but fell by almost half in big cities.

More rural children using

To measure the problem another way, a continuing survey of drug use among 
junior high and high school students by the University of Michigan has 
found that crack is now more widely used among 8th-, 10th- and 12th-graders 
in rural areas than among those in metropolitan areas. Methamphetamine use 
is now highest in rural areas among all three grades and heroin use is 
about equal in urban and rural areas, the survey found.

The spread of drugs in the countryside is uneven, the experts say.

In Washington County, for instance, at the far northeastern corner of 
Maine, prosecutions in crimes involving OxyContin are 10 times what they 
were in 1998, say law-enforcement officials, who estimate that at least 
1,000 of the county's 35,000 residents are addicts.

"It's gone beyond the epidemic stage," Sheriff Joe Tibbetts said. "I can't 
think of a family in Washington County that hasn't been scathed by it in 
some way."

His officers' families are among those who have been affected, Tibbetts said.

In Dawson County in central Nebraska, the problem is methamphetamine. "The 
percentage of meth-related crimes is through the roof," said Paul Schwarz, 
an investigator with the county sheriff's office.

In the state as a whole, officials discovered 38 methamphetamine 
laboratories in 1999; last year they discovered 179.

"If there is a battle going on out there," Schwarz said, "we're honestly 
not winning it."

Similarly, in Douglas County, a vast timber, farming and fishing area in 
southwestern Oregon, Lt. Mike Nores of the sheriff's department estimates 
that 12 percent to 14 percent of the 103,000 residents are making, selling 
or using drugs, particularly methamphetamines and marijuana. Drug use and 
trafficking account for 80 percent of all crime in the county, including 
killings, Nores said.

One reason for the growth in rural drug problems, federal officials say, is 
that aggressive prosecution in cities has led dealers to seek safety in the 
farms and forests of rural counties, which have far fewer law-enforcement 

"We've seen drugs and crime migrate to the rural areas in the past several 
years to get away from law enforcement," said Tony Soto, director of the 
Gulf Coast High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area in New Orleans, a task 
force of federal, state and local law-enforcement authorities established 
by the White House Office of Drug Policy Control.

Poverty in `rural ghettos'

Observers site the poverty and isolation of rural areas as keys to their 
growing drug trade.

"You have many rural areas that are persistent poverty areas, in essence 
rural ghettos," said Joseph Donnermeyer, professor of rural sociology at 
Ohio State University. "They were once isolated and were protected by that, 
with lower crime, but now better communications have broken down that 
buffer so they begin to resemble poor neighborhoods of big cities, where 
people are segregated by poverty."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jo-D