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Meth still region's drug of choice, and it's gaining popularity

Figures from law enforcement and addiction treatment specialists in North Dakota and Minnesota show that meth remains the most commonly used hard drug in the region, with popularity levels surpassing those seen in the early 2000s.

As communities struggle to address the rising popularity of heroin and other opioid narcotics, attention has shifted away from another drug with a nationwide grip. But the popularity of methamphetamine does not seem to be waning.

Figures from law enforcement and addiction treatment specialists in North Dakota and Minnesota show that meth remains the most commonly used hard drug in the region, with popularity levels surpassing those seen in the early 2000s.

In 2016, North Dakota recorded 1,955 meth-related arrest incidents, up from 1,640 in 2015, which was up from 1,248 in 2014, according to data from the Attorney General's Office. Meth incidents in the state have risen each year since 2012, when just 434 incidents were reported.

The Grand Forks Police Department counted 39 meth- or amphetamine-related incidents in 2016, while the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Office recorded 23, according to state data. By comparison, Grand Forks Police recorded 12 heroin incidents in 2016, while Sheriff's deputies had two.

Numbers are on the rise across the Red River, too.

Minnesota has experienced a 489 percent increase from 2009 to 2016 in meth seizures, according to the Department of Public Safety.

2009 marked a low point in levels for people seeking treatment, arrests and seizures for methamphetamine in both North Dakota and Minnesota, but numbers have dramatically increased since then.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety announced the seizure of 487.7 pounds of meth in 2016, more than double the 230.3 pounds seized in 2015. In 2012, just 112.6 pounds of meth were confiscated by law enforcement in Minnesota.

North Dakota was among the first states to pass laws aiming to limit sales of ammonia, medications and other substances used to cook meth in early 2000s. Many of the mom-and-pop-style meth labs across the state were shut down. But the demand for meth persisted.

"Eventually meth kind of waned, and cocaine sort of made a comeback, but that's costly. And then we started seeing more heroin," said Deb Davis, an assistant director at Northeast Human Service Center who was worked as an addiction counselor in Grand Forks for 33 years. "But then it cycled back to where we are seeing more meth."

Tracing the flow

Law enforcement in both states say methamphetamine currently flowing into the Upper Midwest comes largely from Mexican cartels.

Minnesota Department of Public Safety gang and drug coordinator Brian Marquart said that around 2007, cartels figured out a way to mass produce high-quality methamphetamine.

That accounts for some of "the massive influx of methamphetamine we're seeing across the country, including in North Dakota and Minnesota," he said.

User-quantity level methamphetamine now ranges from 70 to 80 percent pure, Marquart said. In the early 2000s when local small-batch meth labs were more common, the quality of the product was high, but the quantity was relatively low.

"Now we are seeing very high quality, into the 80th percentile at the user level," he said.

"A few years ago, a large seizure coming into this state would have been 3 to 5 pounds," Marquart said. "Now we are seeing seizures of 30, 50, 70, even 100 pounds of methamphetamine either coming into this state or bound for Minnesota and North Dakota."

The user base in the region is very high now, Marquart said. Both states are seeing higher numbers of people seeking treatment.

"Methamphetamine crosses all socioeconomic boundaries," Marquart said.

Meth at the street level is typically purchased in grams, with dosage rates at about one-tenth of a gram. Marquart said a gram in Minnesota costs about $100. For wholesalers of the drug, the price has dropped considerably, opening up the potential for even greater profits.

"Four or five years ago it was around $20,000 per pound and now it's down to about $5,000 per pound," he said.

The drug's affordability contributes to its growing use rates, experts said. It's also widely available in most areas.

"It is everywhere," Marquart said. "It is in small, rural towns to the large metropolitan areas."

"Truthfully, if people want to use it, they can find it," Davis said.

Bulk methamphetamine that comes into Minnesota and eastern North Dakota largely comes from the Mexico through the southwest border. The drug is transported by Mexican drug cartels in commercial and personal vehicles, Marquart said. From the Twin Cities, the drug is distributed throughout the state and into eastern North Dakota.

Minnesota's violent crime task forces prioritize targeting mid- to upper-level dealers operating in the state in an attempt to disrupt the flow of meth in the region.

"We continue to work with our partners for treatment and education," Marquart said. "We can't do this alone. We need the public's help."

Treating addiction

While arrests and confiscations of methamphetamine continue to rise in North Dakota and Minnesota, so have admissions to addiction treatment centers for people battling dependency.

In North Dakota's 2016-17 fiscal year, which runs from July to June, amphetamines ranked second on the list of substances people receiving addiction treatment in state facilities behind cannabis and ahead of alcohol, according to Davis, with the Northeast Human Service Center.

The trend is similar in Minnesota.

"What we are seeing in the data is alarming," Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper said in a release. "Methamphetamine use is now second only to alcohol for treatment admissions in Minnesota. The good news is: Treatment works. By strengthening and improving our treatment system, more people will get the help they need when they need it."

Davis said counselors like to put people in residential treatment to deal with amphetamine addiction, which helps them get through the tough initial hours of sobriety.

"We really want to pay attention to withdrawal," Davis said.

Residential treatment even for the first 24 to 48 hours can have a big impact on breaking the physical and psychological withdrawal users experience.

Over time, meth breaks down the body. Teeth rot. Users get little sleep and often have very poor nutrition, Davis said.

Prolonged amphetamine drug usage causes people to lose their ability for the brain to organically experience pleasure, Davis said. Even if someone has a period of sobriety, they may end up trying to use again, just to get the feeling back.

"They just think they can do it one last time," Davis said.

Success for people in treatment is relative. Davis said many people tend to look at someone who has four months of sobriety and relapses as a failure, but she believes that is misguided. Each attempt at sobriety could be the time it sticks for good.

"We don't look at things likes succes and failure as black and white," Davis said.

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