Editor’s note: The following is a continuing series of excerpts from “Come to the Edge: Arrival and Survival in Del Norte County” by College of the Redwoods English Professor Ruth Rhodes.
Richard Griffin is a Deputy and Patrol Supervisor for the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office. As an expert in drug enforcement, he has a lot to say about the challenges our community faces when it comes to controlled substances. But he also has a lot to say about other, more personal challenges, like finding work / life balance in a place where he feels like he is always on duty.
I was born and raised in Medford, Oregon. I went to Southern Oregon University. I played football for them and lived in a dorm with a lot of other athletes. It was kind of like the study hall dorm. My resident dorm advisor was Clinton Schaad, and he kind of laid down the law for us, making sure we weren’t drinking, or smoking, or making too much noise in the evenings. Clinton and I became lifelong friends.
At SOU, I got my Bachelor Degree in marketing, with a minor in criminology. Through Clinton, I met his cousin, Seth Wilson, and we ended up going to Alaska after we graduated, working and playing, and just trying to find our way. I lived in Juneau and did carpentry work—learned it, actually.
But I knew I wanted to try law enforcement. As a kid, I’d watched the Lethal Weapon series, and I thought the job would be constant action and stuff, so I really wanted to do it. Clinton called me one day and said there was a job open. He thought he could get me into it. He was working as the fiscal manager for the Sheriff ’s Office at the time. I said, “Okay, why not?”
I started working in the jail as a Correctional Technician for about $7 an hour, and I just worked my way up after that. I’m currently a Deputy Sheriff and Patrol Supervisor. My first interview was with Tony Luis. Just that interview with him ushered me into my first experience with Del Norte people and how real they are.
He was the Jail Commander at the time, but he’d worked at the mill and was really well-known and respected by the other families in town.
I think everybody knows there’s a few Del Norte families, like the Wakefields and the Schaads, they’re kind of like the prominent, well-liked people. They do a lot for everybody. Once you get into the sports—that’s huge around here—then you just get to know everybody. Mr. Luis was one of those people. He would go to the ends of the earth for you. He gave me my chance.
The way I look at it, Del Norte is God’s Country. Thousands and thousands of people visit us every year. It’s a little unfortunate for locals because we sometimes get numb to the idea that we live in such a beautiful place in the world. There’s a reason people come here—the beauty is what Del Norte County is all about. The town is a little older—it could be remodeled a bit—but you go five minutes in either direction, and you’re in the most beautiful place in the world.
I have a wife and kids, and one of the best things about living here is the family support we get. There’s a strong bond with family. My wife’s mother is a Hartwick. Them living here, it makes it so great. It’s a small-town atmosphere. If you know a few people, you’re going to know everybody. That can go both ways. It can be bad, because everybody’s going to know what’s going on with you. But then it can be good, because everybody knows what’s going on with you, so they can help you when you need it.
Also, access to the outdoors is really special. Just the other day, we went down to South Beach and then drove up to Pebble Beach and had so much fun. I grew up camping, hunting, and fishing in Oregon, and my kids get to experience similar things here. Everyone here can, as long as they’re not letting themselves get tied to their electronic devices.
Drawbacks here? Things I wish were different? One of the biggest challenges we have is health care. My son just had to go to the Emergency Room. We were lucky that he and my wife were in Medford, Oregon at the time. The cost of care here is so high, and the quality isn’t as good. Everyone has a story about health care here. My wife had complications with both her pregnancies and had to be flown out of the county each time. We didn’t have the care we needed here—no NICU for premature babies. It’s not that folks at Sutter Coast don’t care, it’s just that we are so isolated and don’t have the necessary technology.
The economy isn’t that good here, either. I kind of wish I lived here when the logging industry was booming and it was a bustling, growing town. But it seems like we’re making some steps to improve here, and that’s good.
What about drugs? Yes, I can say drug use is a serious problem here, and I do know a lot about it. For many years, my work was out of the Drug Interdiction Grant. My job was to go out and locate meth users and then work up the food chain to locate suppliers and go after them. That’s all I did. My main focus was drugs.
Ask any officer here, that kind of work made the job fun for us. There was a lot to do, and we were busy every night. I worked with all the agencies, and I became a drug expert—testified hundreds of times in court—so I can say that drug abuse is one of the bigger challenges that people in the county face.
We have a lot of end users here, not a lot of suppliers. Most of the suppliers are in Mexico or the southwest. In major communities, you have people dealing with pounds, quarter pounds, not ounces. I have a friend who works down south. They’re taking out twenty pounds in a bust. The most we ever took was two pounds. The suppliers drive it up here in cars.
Meth looks like shattered glass or ice, like in the series Breaking Bad. That series is actually pretty true to life in terms of what users do. They warm it up—get it into a liquid. Most of the time they pull it in a syringe through a ball of cotton in the hope of purifying it. But then they still save the cotton to put in their mouth later to chew on if they can’t get another fix. In the meantime, they inject it, smoke it, or snort it.
It’s actually rare to find people making their own meth here. I’ve only busted a few—one was a kid who didn’t know what he was doing. When people report meth labs, it’s usually just people smoking it.
Most of the labs we have in Del Norte are hash labs. We have a huge marijuana culture here. Mostly we have butane hash labs where people use butane to extract the THC trichomes—the molecules— off the plants to make a much stronger high. You fill a tube with marijuana and drain the butane through it. A mixture drips out into a pan. The butane mixed with the THC will eventually evaporate, but some people don’t want to wait for that, so they heat it, and if they’re not careful, it goes BOOM. So not only is the hash a problem, but making it poses a danger to people.
I’ve served several hundred search warrants to shut down drugs here, but most of that work has ended. The money we had to fight drug use is mostly gone now because of changes in the drug laws. We used to proactively go after marijuana users, but we don’t do that anymore, except to go after growers on public land. We do go after them.
But the laws have changed for other drugs, too. For example, use of methamphetamine used to be a felony. Now, it’s a misdemeanor, or sometimes an infraction. We don’t get funding to go after users anymore. We’re very strapped in terms of manpower in our department. We’re not even supposed to arrest people if we find them with meth. We’re supposed to cite and release. That’s where we’re at with that. This is a statewide policy. And as local law enforcement, we don’t have the authority to enforce federal law.
What about heroin and opioids? We do see heroin here. It’s crazy in Humboldt County, but less of a problem here. I think we’ll see more opioid users soon, what with the increased use of marijuana. We’re already seeing over prescribing of prescription drugs by doctors, including to kids. That’s kind of a way to solve bigger problems in our society now, instead of getting people to put down their electronic devices and go outside or something.
I had an issue, myself, when I had an injury. I broke my leg in a bunch of places—shattered it. Well, I’d done my research, so when they asked me, in the hospital, what I wanted for the pain. I told them I didn’t want anything. Opioids block your body’s understanding of pain. It stops telling you that you have an injury. So your body’s not going to repair itself at a fast pace. I didn’t take any pain killers, and my body adapted. In three weeks, I was back to work, full duty.
Unfortunately, time after time, I have to tell addicts, “The best thing for you is to get out of this town, and go to a town with good services. Go to San Francisco or something.”
It’s not just that we don’t have drug treatment facilities here. The other benefit to leaving town is they get away from their friends and family who are enabling them. People living with addicts need to provide tough love (and that comes from having personal experience of addicts in my family). But here, often, families don’t set those boundaries. They’re often doing drugs, too, or dealing. If an addict is looking, it’s not hard to find someone to sell them.
Everybody knows each other. For someone in law enforcement, that’s another drawback of living here. I run into people all the time who I just busted. And I’m very recognizable. There’s no privacy. No separation.
How do I cope with that, having a family? Well, my kids are still young, but as a parent, when they start to socialize and make their own friends, I’m just going to take it on a case by case basis. I’m not going to prejudge people. Just because I’ve arrested you six or seven times in the past, that doesn’t mean that is who you are today. I know people change. Years after, people will come up to me and thank me for busting them and saving their lives. They’ve turned their lives around, they’ve gotten a family, and they’re totally people I’d trust my kids with now.
But it’s hard to get there—to beat addiction. Just yesterday, I dealt with a parent who is losing custody of their kids. All they had to do was get sober and pass classes. But they can’t make that choice yet. That’s the saddest thing in this world. I think it’s a rock bottom issue—they haven’t hit it yet. They’re not ready. I experienced that with my own family—hoping a loved one was ready to change. It’s rough. You don’t want that person to go there—to rock bottom—but they’ve got to do it if they’re going to find the willpower to beat their addiction.
Another time, I was serving a drug warrant to a parent. Child Welfare Service was there because they had kids. The parent said, “Don’t take my paycheck.” My brain didn’t process it. I said, “What are you talking about? I’m not taking your paycheck.” I didn’t get what they were saying. They said, “Yes you are. You’re here with CPS. You’re taking my paycheck!”
It hit me like a ton of bricks. They meant that because their kids were being taken away, they wouldn’t get the money they normally got to help provide for them. I had trouble sleeping that night, just thinking that anyone would say that about their children—right in front of them, too. They didn’t care about the kids. They cared about the money. Their addiction had made them that selfish.
You know, I would die for my kids. But I have learned something about being selfish, too. I had an incident last year where I almost died of stress. It acted on me kind of like an allergic reaction, and I ended up in the hospital. It had been building and building for years, with all the hard work I put in, and then several incidents that were really hard to get through. The first thing I did when I got out of there was get a life insurance policy to make sure my kids were provided for. That is my main job—to care for my family. It’s not about what I can achieve in life or how I can succeed.
I go home every day and hug my kids. I’ve learned to work less—and that’s hard because I made a name for myself as a hard worker, the guy who was always there. You call me, I answer. That made work fun for me. I wouldn’t take it back those years. But after
I had a family, I realized I was sacrificing my time with them for my job. I had to sit back and focus on what needed to come first. I wanted a relationship with my son and my daughter and my wife, and so I’m forcing myself to find that balance. I’m also taking time for myself and getting exercise in the gym.
What feels unfair here? I looked at that question, and I don’t know what my answer would be. Things seem fair to me. I came here with nothing. I started at the very bottom of the department and worked my way up. All I did was work. And now I’m at one of the top positions, I have a house and a couple of cars. I can’t say anything was unfair.
But I guess I could say that there are those people who—if they know the right people—they get a leg up. There is favoritism here that I see. But I don’t think that’s unique to Del Norte County. I think it’s the same anywhere. I just come from the mindset that if you work hard, if you stay in that grind, things will happen. And they completely have for me.
My experience in Del Norte County is that we’re the real Northern California. We’re unique, we’re cut off, but we’re hard-working, good people. We’re good families. I was given nothing but support. It seemed like I was considered a local the first day. I still have more years living in Oregon than I do in Del Norte, but I really do consider this place my home.
—March 28, 2018