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The drug problem in the Twin Cities – and new help counties are getting to fight it

It's the first time MN has been eligible for this funding.

For the first time ever, some Minnesota counties are getting extra help from a federal government program to fight drug trafficking.

Five Minnesota counties – Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington – were designated as High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) by the White House. These are areas that are considered critical drug trafficking regions in the United States.

The White House's announcement added a total of 18 counties to the program. Before this designation, Minnesota was among just two states (the other is Alaska) that didn't have any designated HIDTA counties, according to the White House.

This was despite efforts from local law enforcement officials. Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek has tried for about a decade to get HIDTA designation for Minnesota, but was told there wasn't funding. That's when he decided to merge with Wisconsin, the Star Tribune reports. And that's how these five counties got into the program.

For Ankoa County, this was the first time it had applied to be considered for the HIDTA designation, Cmdr. Bryon Fuerst of the Anoka County Sheriff's Office told GoMN Tuesday. He said the designation is a "positive step in the right direction, and hopefully we can come up with innovative and good ways to use the potential additional resources to help keep our community safe."

Drugs in Minnesota

Drug use, especially heroin and opioids, has been a growing problem in Minnesota and across the country, prompting the CDC and President Barack Obama to call it an epidemic.

The Drug Abuse Dialogues' Minneapolis/St. Paul Drug Abuse Trends report released in April 2016 found 16 percent of drug treatment program admissions in 2015 were for heroin abuse – that marks the highest figure on record, and the first time admissions for the drug surpassed those for marijuana.

The report found opiate overdoses did level off in Hennepin and Ramsey counties last year, but law enforcement agencies across the state seized 47 percent more heroin than they did the year before.

Methamphatamine also remains a problem in the seven-county metro area, with the report finding 35 percent of all drug items seized by law enforcement in the area were meth-related. Meanwhile, meth-related treatment admissions accounted for 13.1 percent of all admissions – that exceeds the number of admissions during the height of Minnesota's meth epidemic in 2005.

Statewide, a Minnesota Department of Health report showed drug overdose deaths jumped 11 percent between 2014 and 2015, increasing from 516 to 572 deaths. Opioid pain relievers were the leading drug associated with deaths in Minnesota at 216, followed by heroin at 114, while 78 deaths were due to stimulants such as methamphetamines.

How will this benefit MN?

It's not yet clear how much this HIDTA designation will help these five Minnesota counties.

Getting the HIDTA designation (a county has to meet certain qualifications) is the first step in being able to tap into this federal funding, which is meant to help pay for new initiatives – not fund what counties are already doing to fight drug trafficking, Fuerst told GoMN.

Now that the five Minnesota counties have gotten the HIDTA designation, they'll work on what their initiatives are going to be – some could be joint projects with other counties, but Fuerst says it all depends on how much funding is potentially available. Some of the initiatives for Anoka County could also include expanding the fight on heroin and continuing to fight methamphetamine.

There's no deadline for when the counties have to come up with their initiatives, but Fuest says they are hoping to have something written up in the next month or so, noting it's not an official deadline.

It's not clear how much funding the Wisconsin HIDTA will get, but the Obama Administration did request a total of $196.4 million for the entire HIDTA program for 2017.

More about the HIDTA program

Congress created the HIDTA program back in 1988 as a way to coordinate efforts among law enforcement agencies – federal, local, state and tribal – to reduce drug trafficking and production across the country.

In 2012, there were 733 HIDTA initiatives. Through those, law enforcement agencies identified 8,864 drug trafficking operations in HIDTA-designated areas, and they disrupted or dismantled more than 3,000 of those operations, according to a 2015 budget report summary.

That year, HIDTA initiatives removed $1.9 billion of cash and non-cash assets from drug traffickers, and they seized millions of kilograms of marijuana, cocaine powder, meth and ice, as well as more than 1.5 million marijuana plants.

For more, click here.

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