Scope of drug addiction ‘hard to quantify’

Police continue to arrest those with addictions as prosecutors struggle to find suitable treatment options.

By Ryan Lowery | Feb. 21, 2020

The San Miguel County Detention Center had 1,812 total criminal bookings in 2019, ranging from petty misdemeanors to first-degree murder. Of those booked into SMCDC in 2019, about 8 percent were charged with at least one drug-related crime, and many individuals faced multiple drug charges. These charges ranged from possession of drug paraphernalia to possession of controlled substances and trafficking of controlled substances.

The circumstances that led to these charges varied. In some cases, charges were filed following traffic stops. In others, those booked for drug-related crimes were initially arrested for committing other crimes, like theft. Others were specific targets of lengthy investigations by local law enforcement or federal authorities.

Not reflected in that 8 percent figure is non-drug offenses committed by someone supporting a debilitating drug addiction, and according to Tom Clayton, deputy district attorney with the Fourth Judicial District Attorney’s Office, crimes like burglary, breaking and entering or other property crimes are often committed by individuals who are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol.

For this reason, Clayton said it’s important for the DA’s office to evaluate each case individually to determine the course prosecutors will pursue.

“Let’s say there’s a burglary, but (the suspect) has an underlying substance abuse problem,” Clayton said. “It’s dependent on the facts of the case, because not every case has obvious substance abuse problems.”

Those facts will determine prosecutors’ actions, Clayton said.

In some cases, if it appears addiction is an underlying reason the defendant committed a crime, the person might be sent to “drug court,” a jail diversion program that focuses on treating addiction rather than punishing them with jail time. A defendant may be placed in drug court at the request of the DA’s office, a defense attorney or a judge, according to Clayton.


It’s dependent on the facts of the case, because not every case has obvious substance abuse problem

Tom Clayton

Deputy District Attorney

But even when addiction is suspected, not every defendant is placed in drug court, and not everyone who is given drug court will complete the program. Failing a drug test or not complying with other court orders are the most common reasons participants fail to complete the program, Clayton said.

Throughout 2019, the Fourth Judicial District Attorney’s Office handled 181 drug-related cases, a slight increase from 178 cases the prior year.

In 2018, 31 cases were dismissed; however, in 2019, 53 were dismissed. District Attorney Richard Flores attributed the majority of the dismissals to a lack of evidence or to defendants’ constitutional rights being violated during the arrest.

The Las Vegas Police Department did not respond to repeated requests for information on drug arrests in the community, but Las Vegas has recently been the focus of several investigative operations by law enforcement.

These operations have been carried out by local police, the Region IV Task Force and by agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

In September, 10 people were arrested and charged with federal crimes following raids by the DEA and local law enforcement. The target of the year-long investigation was 42-year-old Robert Corbin Padilla, who is accused of running a drug trafficking organization from Albuquerque that police estimate was responsible for 70 percent of the cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine trafficked into Las Vegas.


Robert C. Padilla

Courtesy Metropolitan Detention Center

According to an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court, DEA agents suspect that Padilla is the head of a drug trafficking organization responsible for 70 percent of the cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine trafficked into Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Beginning in December, a multi-agency drug investigation culminated in the arrests of 15 people and resulted in multiple charges of trafficking cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

According to the DEA, drug trafficking organizations supply large quantities of drugs to street-level dealers, who in turn sell smaller amounts to individual buyers.

Those buyers, who are often struggling with addiction, come from many walks of life, according to Joshua Swatek, the harm reduction program manager for the New Mexico Department of Health.

“You could have individuals who are able to keep a regular 8-to-5 job — with high pay and a family life — that use in secret because they’re dependent upon the substances,” Swatek said. “Then you have individuals who are experiencing homelessness using substances. It really just depends on the individual situation.”

Swatek said it is difficult to explain the grip of addiction to someone who’s never experienced it.

“I shy away from creating a blanket statement for what (addiction) is like,” he said. “It really depends upon their situation, their family life, their job situation (and) their housing status.”

Many people don’t understand that there’s a physical component to addiction as well, Swatek said.

“Especially with opioid dependence. It starts off with prescribed pain medication, and it transitions to other substances,” he said. “There’s a biological dependence on opioids. If they’re taken away suddenly, people get very, very sick. So as they progress in their dependency, they have to use (drugs) in order to not feel sick.”

While it’s difficult to explain what it’s like to have a substance addiction, Swatek said it’s equally difficult to measure the overall scope of addiction in the state.

“As far as exact rates of addiction in New Mexico, that’s sort of hard to quantify, because people go in and out of it all the time,” he said.

According to Swatek, several factors prevent those struggling with addiction from seeking help.

“The stigma issue is often a barrier. Sometimes there is an availability issue; when people are ready for treatment, they may not be able to get into a doctor right away,” he said. “And they have to be ready for it. They have to be at a point in their life where they’re ready to make a change.”