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Group takes drug fight statewide

Santa Clarita-based organization trains law enforcement officials to recognize narcotics

Posted: May 24, 2009 10:01 p.m.
Updated: May 25, 2009 9:00 a.m.
 
A Santa Clarita-based nonprofit is on the front line of the statewide battle against drugs, according to the association's executive director.

The California Narcotics Officers' Association helps law enforcement officials and prosecutors enforce California's drug laws while lobbying state legislators to pass even more stringent drug laws, said Joe Stewart, executive director.

The association trains personnel from nearly all of the state's law-enforcement agencies in drug-abuse recognition, undercover-officer safety, search-warrant preparation and drug-lab laboratory investigation, Stewart said.

The association is supported by member donations and by tuition paid by law-enforcement agencies for its programs, he said.

Before the California Narcotics Officers' Association was founded, two informal groups concerned about drug-law enforcement were meeting in homes of law enforcement officers throughout the state as far back as the 1950s, Stewart said.

"In the early days, it was marijuana that dominated Northern California - specifically San Francisco," Stewart said. "(In Southern California) you had border drugs like cocaine and chemical-based drugs like LSD."

The drug trade sent Bay Area marijuana to Southern California, while cocaine and LSD flowed north. The need arose to have a state narcotics officers' association so that local law enforcement agencies could share tips on how to recognize the effects of those drugs, as well as battle them, Stewart said.

The California Narcotics Officers' Association was founded in 1964. Past association president Bob Hussey moved the headquarters to Santa Clarita in the 1970s.

"The organization started humbly to provide training and it's grown to more than 7,000 members," said Gary Schram, assistant chief, bureau of investigations, in the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office.

The Narcotics Officers' Association provides more than 150,000 hours of training annually to more than 7,000 members, Stewart said.

The training program provided by the Narcotics Officers' Association that Stewart is most proud of is the Drug Recognition Education class. The class is Peace Officer Standards Training certified, which qualifies the graduates as experts at recognizing the influence of drugs, Stewart said.

"When officers who have gone through the drug-recognition training testify in court, they do so as qualified experts," he said.

However, the Narcotics Officers' Association does more than train law-enforcement personnel on how to fight the statewide war on drugs, Stewart said. The association employs John Lovell, a registered lobbyist who tries to persuade California legislators to toughen drug laws.

"You are talking to legislators about the nature of the drug problem," said Lovell. He gathered legislative support for a recently passed a law to require a prescription to possess pseudoephedrine, common in cold remedies and one of the building blocks of the street drug methamphetamine.

"(The CNOA) was able to get legislators to vote for the bill because we brought in a district attorney from Lincoln County, Ore., to testify on the dangers of methamphetamine," he said.

The lobbying is part of the Narcotics Officers Association's battle against what Stewart describes as a cultural acceptance of drug use. "Society has become desensitized to drug use," Stewart said.

Society's softer stance on drugs translates into what he describes as decriminalization through the medical marijuana program and soft penalties for simple possession, Stewart said. A person in California can possess up to one ounce of pot and the stiffest penalty is $500.

Stewart finds this trend of drug decriminalization dangerous.

"Marijuana is a gateway drug," he said. "We have to make our stand somewhere."

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