Police battle drugs flowing north from downstate, pills traded among family
ALPENA — A network of dealers and distributors relentlessly imports methamphetamine and other drugs into Northeast Michigan, police say.
Each year, the Huron Undercover Narcotics Team seizes thousands of doses of illegal drugs. The team arrests an average of more than 100 people per year for making, distributing, or trafficking illegal drugs in Northeast Michigan.
On a per-capita basis, Alpena County’s 2019 drug-related arrests vastly exceeded the statewide rate, at 340 arrests per 100,000 residents here, compared to 208 per 100,000 statewide.
Illegal drug use endangers residents’ health and safety, data show:
∫ In the past decade, nearly 80 people — half in Alpena County — died in Northeast Michigan because of a drug overdose, and more than 150 people went to the hospital for opioid-related illness, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
∫ In the past 12 months, Alpena County recorded an average of 30 overdose-related emergency room visits per 100,000 people every month, compared to 25 per 100,000 people monthly statewide. The county’s overdose death rate is not as bad as the death rate statewide.
∫ Between 2016 and 2020, nearly 100 Northeast Michigan crashes in Alpena County involved drugs, according to the Michigan State Police.
∫ More than 1,300 Northeast Michigan residents sought treatment for substance use disorder in the past four years, according to the Northern Michigan Regional Entity, which oversees behavioral health treatment in the northern Lower Peninsula.
∫ Drug crimes, especially involving meth and heroin, account for nearly 85% of the inmates in the Alpena County Jail at any given time, said Alpena County Jail Administrator Christina Bednarski.
Methamphetamine, which police call the area’s biggest problem drug, flows into the area through an organized network. Dealers buying drugs cheaply downstate take advantage of the high prices Alpena-area users will pay, according to HUNT Commander Detective Lt. Stuart Sharp.
“It’s not happenstance,” Sharp said. “It’s planned.”
METH: OUR BIGGEST PROBLEM
Police universally point to meth as Alpena’s biggest drug problem.
Last year, Northeast Michigan police made half as many drug-related arrests as in the previous year, but seized 10 times as much meth, according to HUNT’s annual reports.
Meth cases currently make up a third of the cases on any given criminal court day, Alpena County Prosecutor Cynthia Muszynski said.
But the area battles more than meth.
In 2020, HUNT seized more than 26 grams of cocaine, 336 units of ecstasy, 638 grams of hallucinogens, and $4,000-worth of illegal marijuana, along with methamphetamine worth more than $35,000.
Police also struggle to stop the illegal distribution of prescription drugs, which often happens between family members or aquaintentances, Sharp said.
Between 2006 and 2014, Montmorency County registered one of the highest per-capita rates of opioid prescriptions in the state, at 66 pills per person per year.
Opioid prescriptions have dropped by 68% in Northeast Michigan since 2015, following a nationwide push to reduce doctors’ prescription rates.
Still, opioid overdoses caused 15 hospitalizations in Alpena County in 2019, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and Northeast Michigan police seized about 2,000 units of illegally exchanged prescription stimulants.
Fentanyl, which distributors may add to meth and other drugs to make them more potent, can kill in even miniscule amounts. In January, police arrested an Alpena man with about 50 doses of meth in one pocket and a syringe filled with fentanyl in the other.
For a time, local sellers made their own meth in homes or garages of ingredients not only destructive to the human body but also prone to explosions and producing toxic fumes. As state and federal prescription-tracking efforts slowed sales of over-the-counter medications needed for meth production, local sellers turned to meth trafficked from South America, Sharp said.
HUNT raided three meth labs in 2020, compared to eight in 2017. The 2020 raids included a lab in an Alpena County home occupied by numerous children.
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Alpena’s drug deals are connected to drug trafficking organizations and gang activity downstate, Sharp said.
People who sell drugs locally — whether Alpena residents who drive downstate to purchase drugs and bring them back north or downstate dealers who drive north to make a sale — know they can turn a profit in Alpena, Sharp said.
Buyers can pick up an ounce of meth — about the size of a baseball — for about $300 in Saginaw, Battle Creek, or other downstate cities. Sellers can get $100 per gram (about a sugar packet’s worth) in Alpena, making a profit of $2,500 per ounce, Sharp said.
After arriving in Northeast Michigan, meth and other drugs spread across the area through a network of residents who use technology — Snapchat messages that disappear, cash apps to send money, multiple phones to hide business — in a drug-sharing system “more sophisticated than people like to believe,” Sharp said.
In large cities, police can make undercover buys from dealers selling drugs on street corners, Sharp said.
In more-rural Northeast Michigan, buyers place their orders with known dealers who bring north only as much as they know they can sell. A seller arriving in town on a Sunday with 50 grams will distribute all of it by Monday morning in transactions in homes, hotels, apartments, and parking lots, Sharp said.
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AN ENDANGERED COMMUNITY
Some users steal from family and friends, break into businesses, loot scrap metal, snatch purses from cars, and shoplift to get money to buy drugs, Sharp said.
Overdoses — including 26 Alpena County overdoses reported to MDHHS in spring and early summer — tie up hospital staff and emergency responders and drive up medical costs for everyone, the detective said.
A stimulant that makes people do things they’d never do sober, meth increases the risk of violence — especially alarming when police find users who also carry guns, such as the recent Alpena County man stopped in his car with meth, two pistols, and a child. The man also had a semi-automatic rifle in his house with which he had threatened neighbors the night before, police say.
“Everyone suffers from this,” Sharp said.
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, email@example.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.