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'Flooded' in meth: Seizures jump in North Dakota, Minnesota

This 2018 photo from the Drug Enforcement Administration offers a closeup view of crystal meth.

FARGO — The Drug Enforcement Administration saw a spike in methamphetamine seizures in 2018 throughout North Dakota and Minnesota, while similar data from local agencies is more of a mixed bag.

“The whole Upper Midwest is just flooded in (meth) right now,” said Ken Solek, assistant special agent who oversees DEA operations in Minnesota and North Dakota.

DEA seizure numbers showed a huge jump in North Dakota between 2017 and 2018, from about 3 pounds of meth to 61.8 pounds. Minnesota had a 74-pound increase in that time span, from 565 to 639 pounds.

Meth makes its way to the region from drug cartels in Mexico, where the price to produce the drug is dropping while purity levels are rising, Solek said. Large-scale DEA seizures are seeing 10 to 50 pounds of meth during a bust, compared with 5 pounds a few years ago.

How much of the drug is seized locally seems to ebb and flow.

The Lakes to River Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force — a partnership between Moorhead and Breckenridge police and the sheriff’s offices in Clay and Wilkin counties — seized about 40 pounds of meth in 2018, compared with about 23 pounds in 2017.

Fargo police, however, saw a decline, from about 26.5 pounds of meth in 2017, to 4.8 pounds in 2018.

Moorhead police Lt. Brad Penas said drugs have always been in the community and seizures are not a true reflection of local drug activity. “We know there are drug traffickers that are coming into our community that we’re not aware of,” Penas said.

Drug seizure operations come down to timing and luck of the draw, said Fargo police Sgt. Matt Christensen, who oversees the department’s narcotics unit. “Drug dealers around here work 24/7, and we do the best we can to catch them,” Christensen said.

A day can make the difference between seizing little drugs and a lot of cash, Christensen said, because a dealer can sell the drugs before law enforcement steps in.

Drug seizures can take place at traffic stops, but often officers execute search warrants based on information from the public or from confidential informants, Christensen said.

The Cass County (N.D.) Drug Task Force is associated with the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation. A BCI spokesperson told The Forum that task force drug seizure data was not available.

The Fargo Police Department’s narcotics unit doesn’t focus on street-level users living here in the community, rather Christensen said efforts focus on catching dealers coming from outside the area and “taking advantage of those users suffering from addiction.”

The unit also doesn’t target marijuana. Christensen said his team is more concerned about dangerous drugs like meth and heroin. “We have a demand in our area, unfortunately, which is why it keeps coming here,” he said.

Christensen said those drugs are much cheaper in Chicago and Detroit and dealers get more money by selling farther north. It’s not cost effective to make meth here, he said, and that type of drug activity phased out in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“The days of us seeing meth labs in our area are over. We hardly ever deal with it,” he said.

Penas echoed this, saying there was a big push to make it harder to purchase meth ingredients, so operations moved outside the country. Before this shift, officers would encounter meth labs in garages, basements and empty buildings.

Kim Hyatt

Kim Hyatt is a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and a 2014 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth. She started her newspaper career at the Owatonna People’s Press covering arts and education. In 2016, she received Minnesota Newspaper Association's Dave Pyle New Journalist Award and later that year she joined The Forum newsroom.

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