Despite rural charm and outdoor beauty, meth remains a problem in Cook County
WTIP file photo

Despite rural charm and outdoor beauty, meth remains a problem in Cook County

It doesn’t align with the brand of “America’s Coolest Small Town,” but methamphetamine is as much of a reality in Grand Marais and other parts of Cook County as are the endless stream of accolades that tourism magazines and other such entities apply to the scenic North Shore, according to numerous law enforcement officials who spoke with WTIP this month.

Most of the methamphetamine (meth) that finds its way to northeastern Minnesota arrives by mail.

“It comes from Mexico or Central America,” said Chad Nagorski, of the Lake Superior Violent Offender Task Force based in Duluth. “The cartels are making it and sending it here.”

Packages containing meth are typically mailed from California to places across Minnesota, including the Iron Range and the Duluth area. Nagorski, the commander of what was formerly known as the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force before the name was adjusted slightly in recent years, said drug dealers use the US Postal Service, FedEx, UPS, and other mail delivery services to transport drugs to northeastern Minnesota. From there, smaller amounts of meth are sold in places like Ely and Grand Marais. Illustrating Nagorski’s point, earlier this month, five pounds of meth was confiscated at the Hibbing Post Office.

Cook County residents using meth is something the local sheriff’s department has been aware of for years. In 2018, there was a community forum at the Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais where drug use and abuse on the local level was discussed at length by what was formerly known as the “Joint Powers Committee,” a group comprised of community leaders, elected officials, decision makers, and others. Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen was at this meeting (as was a member of the WTIP news department) and he talked about drug use in Cook County, including the fact methamphetamine is being used by some local residents. During the meeting, Eliasen said meth was, in fact, fairly prevalent in Cook County. After Eliasen made his statement, former and current members of the Cook County Board of Commissioners appeared to be flabbergasted at the fact meth is being using by people in the community.

Five years later, when WTIP asked the local sheriff if meth is still a problem in Cook County, Eliasen did not mince words.

“Yes,” he said. “It is a problem.”

Who is Using Meth in Cook County?

Of all the people from Cook County who were admitted to a treatment facility for substance abuse in 2020 (the most recent data available), alcohol and methamphetamines were the primary substances used at admission, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. In 2019, for example, at least 23 Cook County residents sought treatment for meth abuse or addiction. The state department of health only tracks people who receive treatment in Minnesota, which means more Cook County residents could have received treatment for meth abuse in addition to the nearly two dozen listed in the report.

The stereotypical meth user is someone who is skinny, looks as though they have acne, doesn’t have much money, and appears to be jittery. That’s not always the case, according to Eliasen, who told WTIP that the people who use meth in Cook County are not confined to one pocket of the community.

“It goes through all demographics, all the socioeconomic classes,” he said. “It doesn’t attach itself to one class or another.”

One Cook County resident, who wished to remain anonymous, told WTIP in late October that it’s well known among the local population that meth is being used by community members of a variety of ages, including both men and women. The data supports such a claim, including the fact 132 Cook County residents sought treatment for meth addiction during a timespan that stretches less than a decade, from 2012 to 2020. The county’s entire population is just over 5,600 people, meaning that more than two percent of local residents sought treatment for meth during that timeframe. And that’s only factoring in people who sought treatment, either voluntarily or because a court ordered them to.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Department does not have data on how much meth is seized annually, though it is typically only a small amount, Eliasen said.

“We get some, every once in a while off a traffic stop,” he said. “Or, off a different arrest, where a person will be in possession of it.”

Most of the information local law enforcement gather on meth use in Cook County comes anecdotally, the sheriff said.

“A lot of it is just talking to people,” Elisasen said. “Talking to some of our other partners in public health, and other county agencies that are privy to this information.”

Eliasen said those agencies are required to keep the specifics on who is using meth confidential, but anecdotes and other similar information can help paint a picture of how much meth is being used in Cook County, the sheriff acknowledged.

“A lot of it is word of mouth, and listening to people, talking with people… you know it’s here,” Eliasen said.

The Problem with Meth

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), methamphetamine is a powerful, highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. It takes the form of a white, odorless, bitter-tasting crystalline powder that easily dissolves in water or alcohol. Certain people are drawn to meth because it’s far cheaper than something like cocaine, while also being more readily available in rural areas like Cook County.

Meth can be smoked, snorted, injected, or orally ingested, according to a comprehensive NIDA report on the drug. As with many stimulants, methamphetamine is most often misused in a “binge and crash” pattern. Because the pleasurable effects of methamphetamine disappear even before the drug concentration in the blood falls significantly, users try to maintain the high by taking more of the drug. In some cases, NIDA reports, people indulge in a form of binging known as a “run,” foregoing food and sleep while continuing to take the drug for up to several days.

Meth is commonly manufactured in Mexico or rural parts of North America by combining various forms of amphetamine, or derivatives with other chemicals to boost its potency. Pills containing pseudoephedrine that are used as remedies for the common cold are often used as the basis for the production of the drug, Nagorski from the Duluth anti-drug task force told WTIP in October. This type of cold medicine is now available only through a prescription in the U.S., though it’s still easy to purchase in Mexico, according to Nagorski.  As it’s being produced, a meth “cook” extracts ingredients from those pills and to increase its strength combines the substance with chemicals such as battery acid, drain cleaner, lantern fuel and antifreeze, according to NIDA.

Substances mixed with things like battery acid and antifreeze are a far cry from other illegal drugs that simply come from the earth. As society shifts to a more open mind on various substances, including marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms, meth remains in a different category in terms of how it can impact the human body. Marijuana, for example, is simply a plant that grows from the soil. It became legal to use and possess marijuana in Minnesota starting Aug. 1. Out West, “magic mushrooms” are being used legally to help people struggling with mental-health issues and addiction, including alcoholism. In Oregon this summer, America’s first licensed psilocybin service center opened in June. The center now has a waitlist of more than 3,000 names, the Associated Press reports, including people with depression, PTSD or end-of-life dread. Similarly, Colorado voters last year passed a measure allowing regulated use of psilocybin mushrooms starting in 2024, and California’s Legislature last month approved a measure that would allow possession and use of certain plant- and mushroom-based psychedelics, including psilocybin and mescaline, with plans for health officials to develop guidelines for therapeutic use, the AP reports.

Meth, however, is a different type of drug. Made with harsh chemicals, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration explains that meth not only changes how the brain works, it also speeds up the body’s systems to dangerous, sometimes lethal, levels—increasing blood pressure and heart and respiratory rates. People who repeatedly use meth may also experience anxiety, paranoia, aggression, hallucinations, and mood disturbances, the organization reports.

Or, as Nagorski, more plainly puts it: “Meth is just an absolutely horrible substance.”

What Can Be Done?

It’s no secret that the Cook County Sheriff’s Department has a critical staffing shortage. Recruitment and retention of employees has plagued the department for years, Eliasen has stated in numerous WTIP interviews and public meetings this year. With that in mind, there’s not much that can be done at this time to stop, or even slow the amount of meth being brought to, and used in Cook County.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the staff to be proactive enough to initiate investigations,” Eliasen said. “I hate saying that. I feel like I’m cutting my own throat by saying that openly, but it’s the truth.”

Similarly, Nagorski told WTIP that the Lake Superior Violent Offender Task Force does not have the staffing capacity to cover Cook County. The task force already covers an area spread across some 11,000 sq. miles in northern Minnesota, Nagorski said, stretching its resources thin.

Other agencies, such as the US Border Patrol and US Customs and Border Protection, can play a role in stopping illegal drugs from entering Cook County. However, Nagorski said meth is not typically entering Minnesota from Canada, including Lake Superior. Most of the meth entering Cook County, Nagorski reiterated, is likely being made in Mexico and arriving by mail or being driven to places like Lutsen and Grand Marais.

Moving forward, Eliasen said he hopes to fill vacant positions within the sheriff’s department so local law enforcement can reduce the amount of meth being brought to, and used in Cook County.

“Hopefully we can get back up to staff in the next year or two,” he said. “And when we do, part of that staff is going to be a full-time investigator to take on drug cases and other cases like that. So then we can be proactive, and we can start going after some of the dealers and things like that.”

Listen to the audio below to hear Eliasen discuss the meth problem in Cook County. This interview originally aired live on WTIP Oct. 26.