Chronic City: Oh, Noes! Fewer Narcs! Budget Crisis Could Mean Fewer Drug Busts.

Is it game over for the state's narcotics officers?
California's budget crunch could cut almost a third of the agents from the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, according to Attorney General Jerry Brown.

Budget negotiators, facing the financial meltdown of the state treasury, have proposed lopping $20 million from the bureau, on top of $12 million in previous cuts. Brown called it a "terrible budgetary decision" that would lead to layoffs for nearly a third of the BNE's agents.

The agency, part of the California Department of Justice, fields plainclothes agents who work "under the radar" in the drug underworld. "BNE programs target major drug dealers, violent career criminals, clandestine drug manufacturers and violators of prescription drug laws," according to the agency's Web site.

Brown maintained that the layoffs would severely hamper -- or even eliminate -- 51 multi-agency task forces operating throughout the state. These task forces go after major methamphetamine operations like the ones prevalent in the Central Valley. Drug distribution rings operated by Mexican cartels are another target.

But the bureau also pisses away millions of taxpayer dollars in a doomed, quixotic quest to eliminate Marijuana grow operations in homes, forests and national parks. In 2006, the latest year for which the BNE provides figures, the agency seized 3,358 pounds of pot and 236,526 Marijuana plants.

State officials say the task forces are important in fighting drugs, especially in rural areas, because of the prevalence of meth and Marijuana in counties where law-enforcement resources are limited.

The proposed cuts are contained in the Democratic budget plan being considered by the Legislature. A Saturday meeting between Democratic leaders and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger failed to produce any agreement.

Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego) said lawmakers have little choice when it comes to budget cuts. The state is facing an estimated $24.3 billion budget deficit, and is already cutting billions of dollars for education, health care, welfare and other social programs.

The BNE was created during alcohol Prohibition in 1927. It is the oldest narcotics enforcement bureau in the United States, predating the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) by almost 50 years.

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