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Meth labs slow to a trickle in North Dakota, Minnesota

FARGO -- In 2010, North Dakota and Minnesota hit new lows for the number of methamphetamine-making operations found since laws regulating the sale of one of the chief ingredients of the drug were enacted.

According to federal statistics, the states the Red River Valley straddles saw more than 400 incidents involving meth labs in 2004 -- the year before Minnesota and North Dakota lawmakers both passed laws strictly controlling the sale of pseudoephedrine, a meth ingredient found in some cold medicines.

Homegrown lab busts immediately took a sharp downturn, with just 76 labs found in the two states in 2006, according to statistics from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

But the states passed a hallmark in 2010, as meth-lab incidents slipped under double digits in both: eight in North Dakota and nine in Minnesota, according to the DEA figures.

Though a federal prosecutor says there's been no drop in methamphetamine trafficking, the reduction in the region's production of meth has freed up more resources for local police.

Sgt. Mat Sanders helms the Fargo police narcotics unit and was a drug investigator back when meth labs were the department's top concern not quite a decade ago.

Comparing the two eras, Sanders said the time spent on marijuana busts versus meth investigations is the opposite it was during his days as narcotics detective.

"It's really been a direct flip-flop," he said. "Now, most of our time is spent on marijuana activity."

Substance-specific numbers for FPD investigations weren't available, but for the city's drug unit, Sanders estimated meth takes up the third-most time now -- behind not just marijuana but also synthetic pot.

Fargo narcotics officers haven't discovered a meth-cooking operation in the city since a vehicle lab was busted in October 2009, Sanders said.

Gary Euren, an assistant Cass County state's attorney who prosecutes drug cases, said the local drop in meth production has been noticeable in court, too.

"Even a couple, three years ago, there was more than there was now," he said of meth-making cases.

Euren said the last spate of meth manufacturing he recalls being prosecuted in Cass County state courts was early last summer, and none of the three or four defendants charged even had gotten to the point of getting the lab working.

"One of them was about ready to go cooking when they got caught," he said.

Euren echoed Sanders in saying local investigators, in light of the drop in meth labs, have had more resources to combat other controlled substances.

"If you're not looking for meth as hard, you look for marijuana harder," Euren said.

Sanders also said fewer meth investigations means that tips narcotics officers receive about meth do tend to get a high priority.

"Since the numbers are low, we want them to remain low," he said.

In Moorhead, Minn., the weight of meth seized over the last half-dozen years has fallen dramatically. Last year, 610 grams of meth were found by Moorhead drug officers, said Lt. Brad Penas, head of investigations for Moorhead's Police Department.

That's about 20 percent of the roughly 3,000 grams Penas said the city's police seized in 2006.

"Thank God. That stuff was pretty dangerous," said Penas, who said prescription pills have been a major focus lately.

Though finding less meth locally is an encouraging trend, Penas said: "Is the problem gone? No. The drugs are still coming into our community."

That's plenty obvious to Chris Myers, assistant U.S. attorney in North Dakota, who prosecutes the sprawling drug conspiracy cases charged in federal court.

Myers said homegrown labs have never provided a significant portion of meth dealt in the area. In nine years as a federal prosecutor in the state, Myers said, he's never had a case involving a local laboratory.

"Most of the methamphetamine we have seen and continue to see is large-scale organizations distributing methamphetamine from other states and other countries," he said.

The mass trafficking of meth hasn't appeared to slow at all, Myers said.

"That's the reality," he said.

Regardless of whether it makes a dent in the supply of the drug, Myers said the volatility of meth labs and hazardous chemicals used in them means fewer local producers is still a positive.

"It's certainly made our community safer," he said.