A decades-old federal program geared toward wiping out drug-dealing hot spots has netted billions in seized narcotics and taken down thousands of traffickers across the country.
Except in Minnesota.
But the state finally joined the club when it was approved to design plans to take on the production, distribution and chronic use of opioids and other drugs in the five metro counties, areas formally designated as High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, or HIDTAs. The state will team up with Wisconsin, a mutually beneficial collaboration because trafficking doesn't stop at the border, officials said.
The program, established by Congress in 1988, has taken down 3,139 drug trafficking organizations and removed more than $16 billion in drugs. More than 750 initiatives have been staffed by 23,000 officials and analysts at the federal, state, local and tribal levels.
The HIDTA designation ensures that the state will have access to increased resources to clamp down on these pipelines of illegal drugs — particularly along the I-35 and I-94 corridors, said Andy Luger, U.S. attorney for Minnesota. Federal funding will be concentrated on Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, Anoka and Washington counties.
It's unclear how much money the state will receive, but Wisconsin's HIDTA, launched in 2009 and based in Milwaukee, was awarded $5.3 million in 2012. Whatever money the counties receive won't supplant current federal grants, said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who started working toward the HIDTA grant a year ago.
Stanek said he tried for a decade to get a HIDTA destination for Minnesota, but was consistently told there wasn't funding. His solution was to merge with Wisconsin.
Besides the five counties, Minnesota's HIDTA will likely partner with Bloomington and airport police, the State Patrol, Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, he said.
"This has been long overdue," he said.
As part of the application process, each county had to provide a "drug threat assessment." For Hennepin, the report noted that Interstate 94 was linked to trafficking groups from Chicago to Milwaukee ending in Minneapolis. In 2015, there were 3,902 narcotics incidents in Minnesota, nearly half in Hennepin County.
The five counties act as a hub for drugs that reach outstate Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and the Dakotas, the assessment read. Although heroin and prescription opioids continue to be a top priority, the assessment said other drugs that need attention are marijuana, ecstasy and khat. Besides the new Minnesota HIDTA, other areas were designated in Virginia, Indiana, New Jersey and Baltimore.
"The HIDTA program is an important part of this administration's work to expand community-based efforts to prevent drug use, pursue 'smart on crime' approaches to drug enforcement, work to reduce overdose deaths and increase access to treatment," Michael Botticelli, the White House drug control policy director, said when he announced the new HIDTAs last week.
In Dane County, which is part of Wisconsin's HIDTA, opioid overdoses average 15 a week, said County Sheriff Dave Mahoney. Before the new collaboration, Wisconsin law enforcement might have known about a shipment of heroin coming from Chicago, but wouldn't share the information with Minnesota, he said.
"We've had some historically large heroin seizures with the help of the HIDTA," Mahoney said. "We know where the pipelines runs, and our connection with Minnesota is just common sense."
Now that the Minnesota counties have been approved for HIDTA designation, each will submit initiatives for approval from a board with representatives from both sides of the border.
For Anoka County, the longtime struggle with methamphetamine will be on their list, said Cmdr. Bryon Fuerst of the county sheriff's office.
Like his colleagues in the metro area, Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie wants to stop the flow of high-grade heroin causing a spike in deadly overdoses.
Drug dealers don't care about the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin — they just go where the markets are, he said.
"I hear the family horror stories where drugs have take a toll on young people, and they die because of an addiction," he said.
"Somebody is making a lot of money on this."