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Harford sheriff says legalizing drugs would 'compound our problems'

Drugs continue to be Harford County's biggest crime-related problem, and legalizing any of them would only make things worse, Harford County Sheriff Jesse Bane said earlier this week.

Bane told the County Council at a budget review session Tuesday that Maryland's recent decriminalization of marijuana is just a precursor to worse decisions.

"I will guarantee you dollars to doughnuts they will be back next year to legalize marijuana, and when that happens, we will have serious safety issues not only here but everywhere," he said.

A modest increase of $168,611 is proposed in the sheriff's budget, which is the largest expenditure by the county after public schools.

Overall, the proposed sheriff's budget for fiscal 2015 is $69.1 million and includes law enforcement services for most of the county, operation of the county detention center and court security and warrant service. The Sheriff's Office has 520 employees and is adding two positions in 2015, according to the budget.

The direct law enforcement budget, which encompasses patrol and investigations, will be about $33 million.

Bane told county council members he wishes people would look at the problems decriminalization has caused in states such as Colorado and Oregon.

"I think that is the canary in the cage that they've taken to the mines," he said about those states.

"We need to look at the problems that [legalization] is causing and the expense that is adding to budgets," he said.

The battle against drugs is "far and large the most serious problem we have in this county right now," Bane told council members as they review his office's proposed budget for fiscal year 2015.

Bane said he did not "really want to get into an argument" about decriminalizing marijuana and noted he is "not really opposed to" medical marijuana use.

Nevertheless, the sheriff said he believes decriminalization is a precursor to legalizing marijuana for both medical and recreational use.

Decriminalization "is going to compound our problems," Bane said, and it will make deputies' jobs more difficult.

Hampering crime-fighting

Easy access to drugs hampers deputies' efforts to fight other crimes, he said.

"We are also running into situations because of people who are using drugs who decide to break the law, and when deputies respond… those individuals are more violent and difficult to deal with," Bane said.

Since last August, deputies have shot three people, he said, two fatally.

A Bel Air man was fatally shot during a suspected break-in at a snowball stand in August, a Havre de Grace man was fatally shot in a September hostage and barricade situation and an Edgewood man was wounded in a domestic dispute in February.

"The point to be made is that the drugs are creating a problem for us and the people we are dealing with on the street, and it's making our job a little bit more dangerous," he said.

There has been speculation among police investigators and others that drug use may have a contributing factor in all three shooting incidents; however, autopsies on the two men who died showed no evidence of drugs or alcohol in their systems at the time of death, according to a review of those reports by The Aegis at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Bane said he also hopes his agency can get Narcan, the brand name for naloxone, which reverses some effects of opiates.

"Our deputies will be carrying Narcan so we can administer that to someone who is overdosing and we can save some lives," he said, but noted the drug is expensive.

He said the county may be able to get some grant funding for Narcan.

Bane said the county continues to have "a serious problem with pills," an issue he has prioritized in recent years.

The county has led a drug take-back program for several years, which he said has collected more than 13,000 pounds of medication, including in 1,389 pounds of unused and expired medicines turned in during the latest National Drug Take Back Day last Saturday.

"That is medication we have kept out of the hands of our young people and it is medication we have kept out of the hands of burglars," he said.

Detention center changes

Bane said he also hopes to increase security at both the courthouses and the Harford County Detention Center, where he said suicide ideation, or thoughts about suicide, is high.

The Sheriff's Office received a grant to battle rape in prison, part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, and has hired an employee experienced in PREA law for the jail, he said.

The county now spends about $118 daily to keep an inmate in the detention center, "more than we're spending a child in our public schools," he noted.

According to the sheriff's budget, it will cost $22.3 million to operate the detention center in 2015, an increase of $418,000, which means total spending on law enforcement and court services will decrease by 498,000 and 148,000, respectively. The agency's administrative budget is due to increase $264,000 to $7.4 million, according to the budget.

The detention center "is a thriving little city. Unfortunately, it's populated with the wrong kind of people, the criminal element," Bane said.

He added the department is in the process of hiring a clinician for the behavioral health unit and he does not think "we really have a meaningful program in detention center to deal with people who are addicted."

"In all clear conscience, I'm going to bite the bullet and, in addition to the behavioral health unit, I'm going to create a unit to deal with individuals who are highly addicted when they come into the facility," he said.

Aegis staff member Allan Vought contributed to this article.

This article is corrected from an earlier version that incorrectly started what Sheriff Bane said about suicide ideation at the detention center.

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