What is behind the recent spike in drug seizures?

Authorities say they're seeing some big drug seizures.
Authorities say they're seeing some big drug seizures in Minnesota, including marijuana and methamphetamine.
Minneapolis Police Department 2017

Marijuana trafficking is apparently booming on Minnesota roads. The State Patrol says a series of recent seizures put the total amount of the drugs taken last year at more than 2,600 pounds.

That's more than six times what troopers found in stops the year before, in 2016. Heroin seizures were small, but up nearly 30-fold last year over 2016.

But law enforcement and those who watch trends in drug use are troubled by an apparent rise in methamphetamine use in Minnesota that is somewhat overshadowed by attention to the opioid crisis.

"You know for the previous five years prior to 2017, things were pretty level," said Matt Langer, the State Patrol's chief. "2017 was a big year and 2018 appears to be going in that same direction, so, whether or not that's a trend that goes for years, or it's a blip in the radar, I guess we don't know, but we're looking at it hard."

Langer said the patrol has added some K-9 units that improve the odds of finding drugs, but he doesn't know if that explains the spike in seizures. He also said marijuana legalization elsewhere may play a role. There are 29 states where marijuana is at least partially legalized. Nine of those states, as well as Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational possession and use of marijuana.

And it isn't just the State Patrol. In Mankato, authorities say they're seeing more marijuana. The Minnesota River Valley Drug Task Force has seized twice as much marijuana concentrates last year than the year before, in part because of a single case involving hundreds of THC-laced gummy bears, said Jeff Wersal, the task force's commander.

"They're making it legally (in Colorado), and it's a lot easier to get here now." Wersal said the marijuana products are coming through the mail, too.

Twin Cities drug researcher Carol Falkowski said at least some of that reflects changing public attitudes about the drug. Polls are regularly showing public support for legalization at more than half now, across the political and social spectrum.

"It's as high as it's ever been, the percent of people who support the legalization of marijuana, and it's going to affect how law enforcement works, it's going to affect other people's attitudes and it's going to affect use patterns," Falkowski said.

And it isn't just marijuana that's more prevalent. Falkowski said methamphetamine use measured by law enforcement seizures, hospital data and deaths is on the rise again.

"Even though all of that peaked in 2005 and started declining, ever since 2009, it has been going up again. And now all of those measures exceed what were the peak levels of 2005," Falkowski said.

"There's a lot of customers (for meth)," Wersal said about the Mankato area.

The dangerous meth labs and domestic production are gone, replaced by cheap and ready imports from Mexico. Wersal said it's a much bigger problem than opioids, even though prescription medication seizures by his task force were also up by more than 50 percent.

"The opiod epidemic captures the headlines," said drug researcher Falkowski. "It is taking place in an environment where there is as much of a methamphetamine issue as there has ever been."

And that's what troopers have been finding as well: the State Patrol reported seizing nearly 150 percent more meth last year.

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.