St. Louis County – Northeastern Minnesota is among the regions in the United States hit by the opioid epidemic. In recent years, counties across the Northland have also suffered significant rises in methamphetamine and cocaine use, resulting in some of the highest overdose rates per capita statewide.

In an effort to curb the persistent problems, St. Louis County is planning to receive funding from federal agencies to combat the “devastating impact” of drugs in the Northland, Minnesota Congressman Pete Stauber said in a press release Wednesday afternoon as he announced that the county of roughly 200,000 residents has been approved as part of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program.

Stauber’s office described how the Republican representing the Eighth Congressional District had reached out to the former HIDTA director and a director of the National Drug Control Policy to request that the county get designated as part of the program providing counties with assistance for drug control efforts.

“As a former law enforcement officer in St. Louis County, I have seen firsthand the devastating impact that heroin, fentanyl and prescription opioids have had on families across northeast Minnesota,” Stauber said in the press release. “Our law enforcement officers are doing an exceptional job combatting this drug crisis, and this designation will help expand their efforts. In various counties across the nation, the HIDTA Program has successfully prevented drugs from making their way into schools, households and communities, and I look forward to seeing the same results in St. Louis County.”

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Authority, the HIDTA program was created by Congress with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 and now assists federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies determined critical drug-trafficking regions in the U.S. There are 28 HIDTAs, which include about 18 percent of all counties in the nation and 66 percent of the national population.

In his press release, Stauber noted the HIDTA program in 2018 “dismantled nearly 3,000 drug trafficking organizations, removed $16.5 billion worth of drugs from the street and made nearly 99,000 arrests.”

Duluth Police Lt. Jeff Kazel, the Commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force, added, “We are truly grateful for the assistance received from our local, state and federal partners during this process. It’s no secret our region has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, so the HIDTA designation for St. Louis County will provide much needed supplemental resources at a crucial time.”

Opioids, methamphetamine, cocaine

The Northland is among the regions in the United States hit by the opioid epidemic. The recently released DEA data obtained and analyzed by The Washington Post showed that nearly 20 million opioid pills flowed from factories to pharmacies from 2006 to 2012 on the Iron Range. Though area pharmacists cite higher demands from an aging population to partly explain the flooding of opioid pills, there remains unrest when considering St Louis County had distributed 39.15 pills per resident compared to the statewide average of 22.67 pill per resident. The city of Cook received more than 1.2 million pills, with an average of 300 pills for each of the 574 people in the city. Baron’s Pharmacy and WalMart in Hibbing were both ranked as large distributors of pills in St. Louis County, as they received 2.4 million and 1.9 million pills respectively.

The opioid epidemic has become a staple of media across the nation. Earlier this year, the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Task Force — which covers the largest of 21 task force regions statewide with offices in Hibbing, Virginia and Duluth — experienced a growth in pill seizures, rounding up 8.41 pounds of pills in 2018, compared to 0.53 pounds in 2017.

But the regional task force also noted its significant increases in meth and cocaine. Its officers seized 18.53 pounds of meth in the region in 2018, marking a 74 percent increase from 2017 and an amount that was more than the four previous years combined. Its officers also took 0.71 pounds of cocaine, a 53 percent increase from the previous year.

New DEA office

The HIDTA-related announcement comes nearly a week after the DEA declared the addition of a Duluth office, the only one in Minnesota outside of the Twin Cities.

Richard Salter Jr., the special agent heading the DEA’s Omaha Division, reportedly said “joining an existing, successful, well-managed [Lake Superior Drug Task Force] provides us a force multiplier in terms of manpower, intelligence sharing and investigative resources for all participating agencies in this task force,” according to the Duluth News Tribune.

Slater shared some of his plans that called for embedding two, full-time DEA agents in the regional task force which includes officers from Minnesota and Wisconsin. One of the goals is to identify American drug traffickers that may lead agents to suppliers from Mexico, Colombia and China.

Duluth-based politicians and law enforcement applauded the move. In an attempt to show in-state efforts, the first assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota reportedly stated that federal prosecutors this year has more than doubled last year’s total number of meth and heroin distribution cases statewide.

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