ESCANABA - Illegal drug problems are on the rise in the Upper Peninsula due in large part to increased availability of medications, easier ways to make narcotics, and more people being issued medical marijuana cards.
That was the message from Ron Koski, team leader of the U.P. Substance Enforcement Team (UPSET), who addressed a group of community leaders at a monthly governmental meeting in Escanaba this week.
The UPSET narcotics team is made up of state, county and city police from Delta, Marquette and Menominee counties. Federal agents also represent the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
UPSET conducts undercover drug and firearm investigations throughout the year and also provides support to other agencies by doing surveillance and making arrests, said Koski. The agency covers the 12 counties west of Manistique and Munising.
Last year, UPSET investigated 240 complaints, including 54 from Delta County. This represents 23 percent of the agency's caseload in 2012, he said.
Regarding arrests made last year, UPSET nabbed 150 individuals in its coverage area, including 12 people in Delta County, representing 8 percent of the agency's total arrests in 2012, Koski said.
So far this year, 26 of UPSET's 98 complaints were from Delta County, representing 27 percent of the cases. Fifteen arrests, or 16 percent, of the agency's 95 arrests this year have been from Delta County. Four arrest warrants are currently being reviewed by the prosecutor's office, added Koski.
"A problem in all the counties is prescription pills," Koski said, citing specific drug trends throughout the region.
Drug abusers obtain pills by buying them off the street, stealing from friends and relatives, breaking into homes, and "doctor shopping" for multiple prescriptions, he explained.
Methamphetamine, or "meth," is the most common illegal drug issue in Delta County. The largest meth problems have been seen in Marquette, Baraga and Gogebic counties, he said.
Meth has become more prevalent in the region because it is cheap and easy to make, said Koski, explaining the illegal drug is made of five common ingredients which can be easily purchased. Previously, meth took eight hours to manufacture; now it can be concocted in one bottle in 45 minutes, he said.
Meth labs are on the rise and also pose a threat to public safety and the environment, said Koski. The manufacturing process can be explosive and cause severe burns. More babies are being born with meth addictions. Meth labs create hazardous wastes which are often dumped in the woods.
So far this year, 21 meth labs have been found in UPSET's coverage area. Last year, 45 labs were found compared to 21 labs in 2011 and seven in 2010. Statewide, 800 meth labs were found in 2012.
Other drug trends in the region include a huge heroin problem in Menominee and Dickinson counties with the drug coming in through Menominee, said Koski. Marquette County also has a heroin problem with the drug coming from downstate.
Bath salts are a growing concern in the U.P., where major busts have been made in Baraga and Ontonagon counties, he said. Use of synthetic drugs such as K-2 Spice is also occurring in the region. Cocaine use continues as well, he added.
Medical marijuana use and illegal pot use are problems in every county UPSET works in, said Koski. A total of 178,000 people in Michigan have medical marijuana cards and that number is increasing each year, he said.
Patients prescribed a medical marijuana card can grow up to 12 pot plants. Caregivers can grow a dozen plants for up to five patients each, as well as 12 plants for themselves if they have a medical marijuana card, for a total of 72 plants, explained Koski.
The medical marijuana law has created issues for law enforcement during investigations. Since the state will not disclose names of medical marijuana card holders due to HIPPA laws, police cannot determine illegal grows from legal grows until search warrants are executed, arrests are made, and resources are spent, he said.
According to Delta County Prosecutor Steve Parks, a medical marijuana cardholder with THC (the by-product of smoking pot) in his or her system can be prosecuted if there is evidence of impaired driving. On the other hand, it is illegal for anyone without a medical pot card to have THC in their body at any time.
UPSET has been in operation since 1988. In addition to enforcing the law, the agency conducts educational presentations for schools, community groups and governmental agencies. UPSET can be reached at 1-800-882-8202.