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Statewide heroin sweep scores big in Northland

Cloquet’s newest K9 officer Raja and her handler, Detective Scott Holman, played a role in what state and federal law enforcement officials said was the largest heroin bust in Minnesota history last Thursday.

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In the Northland, the multi-agency drug investigation into heroin trafficking was spearheaded by the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force. Dubbed “Project Exile,” the statewide sweep resulted in 65 arrests statewide.

Forty-one of those arrests were in Duluth and, according to Cloquet Police Chief Wade Lamirande, at least three of those people are from Carlton County.

Heroin is an issue across the state, and Carlton County is no exception.

“I think heroin is the most recent epidemic, equal to what we’ve seen with synthetic drugs — such as synthetic marijuana and bath salts — and methamphetamine,” Lamirande said.

Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler agreed, noting that the rise of heroin has been swift, with only one arrest in Carlton County for heroin in 2009, a number that climbed to 25 arrests for heroin in 2012 and 16 in 2013.

According to the St. Louis County Attorney’s office, the local warrants charging the drug crimes were a substantial portion of the more than 150 warrants issued in a statewide investigation.

“The ugly reality of the heroin use and trafficking in our area is not just the individual addictive nature of the drug, but the consequences — including increased property crimes and heightened dangers for children in homes where the drug is used,” St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said in a press release issued Friday.

“Our reported child maltreatment cases continue to climb proportionately with the exposure to heroin use. We have statements from children describing heroin as the ‘brown sugar in a plastic bag’ on their parents’ nightstand,” Rubin added.

Lamirande said teams of law enforcement officers took part in the sweep, and each team had a K9 unit assigned to it.

“That’s where Scott [Holman] and Raja came in,” Lamirande said. “They assisted with the arrests and the execution of several warrants over two days.”

Authorities say that most of the drug being sold in Duluth is brown heroin, usually produced in Mexico.

Heroin is an especially insidious drug. There have been several overdoses in Duluth in the past year because users rarely know how pure the heroin they buy from dealers may be.

Prosecutors say that heroin use has led to many harmful collateral consequences. Addiction to the drug leads users to do things they wouldn’t normally do, break into cars, steal cars, burglarize homes and steal from their own families.

The drug commands a higher price in the Northland than in larger cities because dealers know they run a greater risk of getting busted here.

Lamirande said he thinks “Operation Exile” will definitely have an impact on the local heroin trade.

“Ultimately, an operation like this gives law enforcement the opportunity to go up the chain to get some of the high-level dealers that are supplying the heroin,” he said. “Federal agencies [such as the U.S. attorney’s office and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which organized the sweep] are better able to make the connections and stop the flow of drugs.”

Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jon Holets is the lead prosecutor in the cases.