Note to readers: District 2 Polk County Commissioner Warren Strandell, also a member of the Pine to Prairie Drug Task Force Advisory Board, submitted the following article to the Times for publication.

    Despite the strong effort that is being waged to control it, the drug problem in northwestern Minnesota is getting bigger and bigger all the time.

    Pine to Prairie Drug Task Force agents were involved in 339 arrests for drug trafficking and other violent offenses in the eight-county area of northwestern Minnesota in the past year.

    That number — 339, or almost one a day — was 68 more than the 271 arrests made in 2016 and almost 200 more than were made in 2015.

    In the process of their investigations, the 12-member task force team confiscated 60 weapons, turned up extensive amounts of drug paraphernalia and stolen items, and seized a large amount of drugs.

    Drugs seized in 2017 included 3,641 grams of meth, which was more than double the 1,671 grams removed in 2016 and more than 5 times the amount confiscated in 2015.

    The use of cocaine, heroin and prescription pills (opioids) also showed large increases in arrests and seizures in the past year.

    • Cocaine seizures were up more than 15 times from the 38 grams collected in 2016 to 593 in 2017.

    • Heroin seizures were up more than 2 ½ times from 102 to 275 grams.

    • The number of pills confiscated ballooned from 537 in 2016 to a whopping 200,433 in 2017.

    • Marijuana confiscations were also up… from 2.8 pounds to 12.9 pounds in the year.

    • After none were confiscated in 2016, 14.6 grams of synthetic marijuana were seized in 2017. There had been smaller seizure amounts of this drug in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

    “As our statistics show, we’ve mirrored the nationwide trend of having an increase in the use of heroin,” a task force official notes. “The deadly fentanyl-laced heroin drug combination has been in our area and we are doing everything that we can to get it stopped. Since multiple other agencies have joined in our task force efforts we’ve been able to be much more effective. This shows in our increased number of cases.”

Many now doing time

    About those cases, the official says, “A significant number of offenders are now doing time in prison. We have been able to develop air-tight cases; there just haven’t been many not-guilty verdicts.”

    Also high in popularity is the use of prescription pills. That popularity has resulted in a number of home break-ins where the medicine cabinet was a prime focus. Of crimes committed locally, agents say, drugs and alcohol are a factor in a large percentage of them.

    The cities of Crookston, East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls each assign an investigator to the task force. Counties providing investigators are Lake of the Woods, Norman, Polk and Roseau. The U.S. Border Patrol commits four agents and U.S. Homeland Security provides an investigator.

    While not committing a full-time member to the task force, Kittson, Marshall, Pennington and Red Lake counties assist as needed. Marshall and Norman counties and the City of Thief River Falls each have canine officers that are available to the task force.

    The task force receives $200,000 in state funding annually. This money is split between the cities and counties to reimburse them for a portion of the salaries of the investigators that they provide.  A part of the grant is also used for training and to purchase necessary equipment.

Advisory board supervises

    The team answers to a 14-member advisory board. That board is made up of East Grand Forks Police Chief Mike Hedlund (president), Crookston Police Chief Paul Biermaier (vice president), Polk County Sheriff Barb Erdman, Pennington County Sheriff Ray Kuznia, Thief River Falls Police Chief Dick Wittenberg, Crookston City Council member Bob Quanrud, East Grand Forks City Council member Mark Olstad, Polk County Commissioner Warren Strandell, Roseau County Sheriff Steve Gust, Assistant Roseau County Attorney Mike Grover, Norman County Sheriff Jeremy Thornton, Norman County Chief Deputy Ben Fall, Lake of the Woods County Sheriff Gary Fish and Lake of the Woods County Attorney James Austad.

    Associate (non-voting) advisory board members include Polk County Attorney Greg Widseth, Red Lake County Sheriff Mitch Bernstein, Ada Police Chief Jody Bueng, Kittson County Sheriff Steve Porter, Marshall County Sheriff Jason Boman, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Eric Kuhn, and Homeland Security Investigations Agent Josh Goldberg.

    In addition to their work in the field, the federal agencies provide a connection to other government resources including prosecution through the U.S. District Court system.

    The task force has agreements that allow it to work across state lines with the Grand Forks Narcotics Task Force and to work extensively with drug task forces in adjacent counties and throughout Minnesota.

    Suspicious activities can be reported to the Polk County Sheriff’s office (218-281-0431), the Crookston Police Department (218-281-3111), the East Grand Forks Police Department (218-773-4307), or to Polk County’s Help Us 2 Fight Meth and All Crime anonymous number (877-204-7505).