The drug task force that covers Orono, Westonka and the surrounding area set a record last year for the amount of methamphetamine it recovered.
West Metro Drug Task Force seized 428 pounds of meth in 2020, which accounts for 37 percent of all meth recovered in Minnesota last year. The state’s 21 VCETs (Violent Crime Enforcement Teams) turned in a total of 1,152 pounds of the drug.
The West Metro task force (WMDTF) is made up of agents from Orono, Minnetrista and Medina police departments, West Hennepin Public Safety and the Hennepin County Sheriffs Office. VCETs also work with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
Most of what WMDTF recovered in meth last year—about 300 pounds—came from a single bust made in Ramsey County. Orono Police Officer Tony White, who is assigned to the task force, said the bust was made in conjunction with the DEA and was the result of a year-long investigation.
It was also an abnormality, he said, though it points to a situation where “we know there are other groups like that.”
Drugs recovered by West Metro, like those from the Ramsey County bust, are not necessarily taken off the streets of Orono or Mound, and White said that out here it’s more a problem of using drugs than it is one of dealing them. Leads obtained here get followed to their source: prevention against more drugs coming into the area. Otherwise, said White, “we know eventually they’d lead back to us one way or another.”
Scott Wasserman, public information officer for the state Department of Public Safety (DPS), said the average amount of meth seized in any one bust has risen in recent years. “Prior to 2015 it would be unusual to see a seizure of more than 10 pounds. Today, it is not uncommon to seize that amount or more in one case.”
Data provided by DPS show that just 230 pounds of meth were recovered in all of Minnesota in 2015. The 1,706 pounds taken in 2019 set a record for 12th straight year of increases in VCET meth seizures, and Wasserman said he believed the dip down in 2020 was the result of local agencies having fewer resources as these agencies reassigned VCET officers to pandemic management.
But maybe there was also less of it, at least temporarily.
Orono PD’s White said that when the border with Mexico was locked down for travel it was near impossible to find the drug anywhere. Dealers and cartel contacts who would normally have a pound or two on them had none, he said.
And with sharp reaction to that sudden pinch on supply, the drug that had been going for cheap wasn’t so cheap anymore. “The drug prices, even at the wholesale level, almost doubled for us,” said White. When it was available, a pound of meth was fetching close to $8,000 instead of the usual $4,500.
Restrictions didn’t last long enough to reverse the decline in home production, though. The number of methamphetamine labs in Minnesota are down from 410 during the “meth peak” of 2003 to fewer than 20 in the last several years, according to DPS: it’s cheaper and less risky to import the good stuff than to tinker with manufacturing it.
But the nature of the drug trade has also kept pace with changes made in how licit trade is done. According to DPS, the convenience of cryptocurrency and pay services like Venmo and PayPal has given traffickers protection against detection, allowing them to exchange large sums of money under the radar. Use of tech to follow loads, combined with the ability to communicate discreetly over apps, has also given law enforcement an added challenge.
It’s a challenge that White said he and others in the WMDTF have had to contend with—although out here that challenge has been connected to marijuana products more than it has to meth.
Edibles and cartridges are imported from Colorado or California and transactions much of the time take place over apps, he said. “It’s not like the old days when you had to road trip out there.”
WMDTF’s numbers from 2020 reflect the trend away from traditional weed and toward the edibles and cartridges that White, who formerly served as a school resource officer, said are especially popular with the younger population. The 53.6 pounds of edibles West Metro recovered last year accounted for more than 20 percent of all edibles turned in by the state’s VCETs.
Opioids also continue to be a problem here. Orono Police responded to five overdose calls in as many days last month, an unusual run that left the department low on its Narcan supply, said Chris Fischer, deputy chief of police. Four of those calls were in Orono PD’s regular service area; one was an assist to West Hennepin Public Safety.
The department has responded to seven overdose calls already this year, including that assiste to West Hennepin: in just three months, the number of overdose calls has overtaken that for all of 2019, when six such calls were made. The department responded to a total of 11 overdose calls last year.
“That is the one thing I don’t understand why you’d start out on,” said Officer White, pointing to the extreme risk in not always knowing what you’re in for with opioids. “Your one pill might have a quarter flake of fentanyl and the next might have five flakes,” that blackout point always an unknown.