BEMIDJI -- The Paul Bunyan Drug Task Force, which covers a large swath of northern Minnesota, removed a lot of illegal drugs from the market this past year.
The multi-jurisdictional task force recently released information regarding its activity for 2019, detailing the number of arrests it made, the amount of drugs it seized, as well as other information related to the agency’s endeavors.
In addition to seizing illegal drugs, the Task Force also can purchase them during the course of an investigation. For example, agencies will at times use informants to buy illegal drugs from suspected dealers so the agencies can obtain enough evidence against the dealers for a conviction.
The drug that the Task Force either purchased or seized the most of in the last year was methamphetamine. In total, the amount of meth the Task Force took off the street was 8,024 grams, roughly equivalent to 17.7 pounds.
In addition to methamphetamine, the task force either purchased or seized 970 grams, or 2 pounds, of heroin/fentanyl, and 134 grams of cocaine.
While clarifying that any large seizure of drugs can skew the overall numbers, Task Force Commander Joe Kleszyk said the presence of meth has increased over the years. In 2007, the Task Force either purchased or seized just under 400 grams of methamphetamine. Almost a decade later, in 2016, the Task Force either seized or purchased 4,071 grams of meth.
The way meth is created and distributed also has changed. State laws have made it more difficult to acquire necessary ingredients to formulate meth. That’s resulted in fewer people creating meth locally, which means more of it comes from areas where it's produced on a larger scale.
The street value of all the drugs confiscated or purchased during the year was roughly $908,000. Kleszyk, however, said that is somewhat of a conservative estimate since it doesn’t take into account other substances the Task Force deals with, such as marijuana.
“When you look at the totality of all the drugs we’re seizing, we’re taking well over $1 million off the street,” Kleszyk said.
The Task Force arrested 155 people for various drug charges in 2019, including 23 people who were arrested for first-degree drug charges. While individual agencies are authorized to investigate drug crimes, the Task Force focuses on mid- to upper-level dealers.
Agents also arrested 148 people for warrants or other non-drug related offenses.
According to Minnesota Statutes, a person can be charged with first-degree possession if they have a mixture of 50 grams or more containing cocaine or methamphetamine. A person also can be charged with first-degree possession if they have a substance of 25 grams that contains heroin.
For an amount comparison, Kleszyk compared a gram of substance to the sugar packets that restaurants give out with their coffee.
The task force also seized 162 weapons during the year. Roughly 100 of those, however, were seized from a single operation. They also removed 46 children from dangerous situations.
The Task Force, which has been in existence since 1988, includes a slew of different agencies from northern Minnesota. They include the police departments from Bemidji, International Falls, and Park Rapids; the sheriff offices of Beltrami County, Cass County, Hubbard County, Koochiching County, Mahnomen County, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Leech Lake Indian Reservation and White Earth Reservation.
To help conceptualize that area, parts of the Task Force’s coverage area extends from Motley, located about an hour and a half south of Bemidji, all the way up to International Falls. The White Earth reservation extends almost to Detroit Lakes. The Leech Lake reservation goes almost to Grand Rapids.
“The geographical area is immense; it’s huge,” Kleszyk said.