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As Appalachia Struggles With Opioid Addiction, Minnesota Battles Meth Surge

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To say opioid addiction has spiked is an understatement. Over the course of the past few years, heroin addiction has grown from a limited problem primarily constrained to urban areas, to a nationwide scourge so large that drug overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50. The sheer scale of America’s current heroin and opioid epidemic is well documented, but just because opioid addiction is a public health and law enforcement problem across the country does not mean that the problem looks the same in all states. Minnesota shares in some national trends, but has certain problems that are all its own.

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While the numbers illustrate the magnitude of the problem, they can also mask the ways in which drug use and abuse is subject to local trends. For the Twin Cities, understanding contemporary drug policy means acknowledging that opioids are the beginning, though not necessarily the end, of law enforcement’s focus. Although the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area has seen a notable uptick in overdose deaths, the state has yet to see the grim totals making headlines in Appalachia. In 2014, 319 people died from opioid overdoses. Although the number seems low, it marks an increase of more than 500 percent since 1999.

For years, heroin barely registered on law enforcement’s radar in Minnesota. In 2008, the state reported fewer than 10 heroin overdose deaths. By 2015, it had more than 100. The scope of the problem has law enforcement on edge.

Although heroin use is up nationwide and the supply of the drug in the Twin Cities area has increased, the growth in heroin use has been dwarfed by the resurgence of interest in methamphetamine. Admissions to treatment facilities for methamphetamine addictions began to rise in 2010 and quickly overtook the previous records, established ten years earlier.

“What we are seeing in the data is alarming. Methamphetamine use is now second only to alcohol for treatment admissions in Minnesota,” said Department of Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper.

Although methamphetamine has lost the cultural cache it had in the early 2000s, when the health and safety hazards of living in or near a cook house were a concern for many residents, it has not lost its popularity. In May 2016, police raided a home in Brooklyn Center, a northwestern suburb of Minneapolis, and seized approximately 140 pounds of methamphetamine. It was the largest methamphetamine seizure in state history and the result of a year-long investigation by a multi-county drug task force.

“DEA takes the trafficking of methamphetamine in Minnesota very seriously,” said Assistant Special Agent in Charge Kent Bailey in a statement after the raid.

The 488 pounds of methamphetamine seized by law enforcement in 2016 was nearly five times the amount confiscated in 2009. If 2009 marked a low point in the methamphetamine trade, 2016 shows that methamphetamine is again becoming a drug of concern. Not only did 2016 seizures set a new state record, they doubled the amount seized in 2015.

In fact, in Minnesota, methamphetamine addiction is second only to alcohol abuse in treatment admissions. Whereas in 2005, the previous peak, 6,703 people were admitted to treatment facilities around the state for methamphetamine addiction, by 2016, the number of admissions stood at 11,555, an increase of 72 percent.

The 2016 numbers showed the continuation of an upward spiral that began to accelerate in 2015. According to a state report on drug abuse trends in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area, although heroin use accounted for the bulk of drug seizures, arrests, overdoses, and admissions to treatment facilities, methamphetamine was growing in popularity.

“Methamphetamine-related treatment admissions accounted for 13.1 percent of total admissions, exceeding the number of admissions at the height of the statewide epidemic in 2005,” law enforcement found.

“Methamphetamine was reported in 35 percent of all drug items seized by law enforcement in the 7-county metro area in 2015, and seizures statewide remained at heightened levels,” the report continued.

Minnesota’s Violent Crime Enforcement Teams seized about 490 pounds of meth in 2015. This total does not include seizures made by other law enforcement agencies in the state, which have different reporting requirements. In the first three months of 2017, the same agency seized 188 pounds of drugs, a trend that, if it continues, would put seizures at more than 750 pounds by the end of the year.

The trend is particularly concerning since it lacks the public awareness of opioid or heroin abuse, which have dominated discussions of crime nationwide. During the height of the previous methamphetamine epidemic, the drug was generally cooked up in local labs, creating a product of dubious purity and leaving behind chemically contaminated houses. State lawmakers fought back by instituting restrictions on bulk purchases of pseudoephedrine and other chemicals used to make methamphetamine. That approach likely won’t work a second time. Today the drug is manufactured elsewhere and is brought into the state from labs as far away as California and Mexico. The result is a product of unparalleled purity—sometimes testing at more than 90 percent pure. Police report that, where they had busted 10-15 methamphetamine labs annually in the early 2000s, they saw only three in 2014 and numbers remain low.

Unfortunately, so are methamphetamine prices. The low cost of the drug is another element attributing to its resurgence in popularity. State officials are looking into several possibilities to explain this, including a lack of public awareness of the dangers of methamphetamine use and difficulty accessing heroin.

“People were aware of the dangers of the use of methamphetamine,” Brian Marquart, statewide gang and drug coordinator for the Department of Public Safety told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “For a variety of reasons, we’ve had other drugs, whether it be synthetics, whether it be heroin, whether it be opiates, come to the forefront, that I think some of that [anti-methamphetamine] messaging has not been heard as loud as it should, methamphetamine is bad.”

Taking advantage of federal programs which allow for cooperation between law enforcement agencies in different states, Minneapolis area law enforcement has been able to work with agencies in Wisconsin to shut down a pipeline bringing meth from Chicago into the Twin Cities. However, they realize that the fight is not yet over, since new suppliers will crop up to replace those arrested and taken off of the streets.

(This article is published as part of the 2016-2017 Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship.)

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