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Northeast Minn. opioid epidemic brings DEA to Duluth

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For the first time since the 1990s, federal officers with the Drug Enforcement Administration will be based in Duluth.

The agency announced its plans this week to expand to Duluth to help combat the trafficking of opioids and methamphetamine in the region. It plans to hire two new federal agents, plus two additional local officers who will be federally deputized.

The new presence in Duluth — called a “post of duty” in agency parlance — will work alongside DEA offices in Minneapolis and Fargo, N.D., in covering the state of Minnesota. The agency will not have its own office space in Duluth, but instead plans to embed its four new hires with the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force, which includes officers from the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office, the Duluth Police Department and four police departments on the Iron Range.

The expansion will be a “force multiplier,” said Richard Salter, DEA’s special agent in charge who oversees a region that includes parts of seven Midwestern states, including all of Minnesota. He said at a news conference Wednesday that the agency expects to not only add new officers to the region, but to increase coordination among local and federal law enforcement.

“To have the extra bodies here is a huge thing,” said Duluth police Lt. Jeff Kazel, the task force’s commander.

“This region as a whole has one of the highest per capita opioid-related death rates in the state,” he said. “Opioids and methamphetamine continue to be the driving catalyst for crime and overdose death.”

Overdose deaths in St. Louis County have surged in recent years. Between 2002 and 2010, there were no opioid deaths in the county, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Health.

But between 2011 and 2017, nearly 150 people died of an overdose in St. Louis County —  the fifth-highest number of any county during that time period, and the highest outside of the Twin Cities metro area. 

That’s one of the reasons, Salter said, the agency is making a permanent expansion in the region.

“We try to go to where the threat is,” he said.

Salter said areas around the country with high opioid overdose rates, including Duluth, are “a direct result of the high prescription rates of opioids.”

The Duluth Police Department began equipping its officers with naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, in 2016. The drug can reverse an opioid overdose if it’s administered in time.

“At the time, I thought maybe we would save one or two or three lives,” said Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken. “Now, since early 2016, we’re up to nearly 90 lives that just the Duluth PD has saved through using Narcan.”

That doesn’t even take into account the number of people who have been revived by other emergency responders, he said, or by drug users themselves who have access to the drug.

“While we see the deaths declining, it is not necessarily an indication of the scope of the problem,” said Tusken. “We believe there are far more people suffering.”

Naloxone, a.k.a. Narcan, may stop an overdose
As opioid overdoses have increased across the United States, access to naloxone, also known as Narcan, has increased.
William Lager | MPR News graphic file

Tusken said he welcomes the additional resources from the DEA, but said Duluth is focusing on a three-pronged approach to fighting the opioid epidemic that includes education and treatment, in addition to enforcement.

Officials at the news conference said the additional DEA officers will help expand local drug investigations across jurisdictional boundaries by taking advantage of intelligence and operational support from the DEA’s 240 offices across the country and 93 offices abroad.

Law enforcement officials say that cooperation often proves valuable. Just last week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota announced a 15-count federal indictment charging two Duluth men in a heroin distribution conspiracy.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney W. Anders Folk said the case was the result of cooperation among multiple law enforcement agencies, which he said would be enhanced by additional federal officers.

“This expansion by the DEA is only going to enhance the successful collaboration and valuable partnerships that exist here in Minnesota,” he said.

Salter said the DEA doesn’t yet have a timeline for the new staff to begin in Duluth. “They start as soon as we can recruit someone who wants to come to Duluth,” he said.