Houghton, Baraga counties struggle to keep meth out of communities

Continuing coverage of the issue with meth and drug addiction across Upper Michigan.
Published: Aug. 12, 2022 at 11:36 AM EDT
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HOUGHTON, Mich. (WLUC) - Over the past decade, crystal meth has reached nearly every corner of Upper Michigan. Houghton County is no exception, says Sheriff Joshua Saaranen.

“In the last five to ten years, our community was introduced to crystal methamphetamine,” said Saaranen. “I would say in that time the amount of crystal methamphetamine and usage has gone up in Houghton County.”

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Sheriff Saaranen says drug possession and distribution crimes have gone way up, whether it be meth, heroin or fentanyl. Saaranen adds many of these substances are found during traffic stops and there’s been a concerning trend over the past year.

“A lot more of these individuals are arming themselves,” he said. “So we have been locating firearms with some of the narcotics that are being seized.”

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Saaranen explains the sheriff’s office works frequently with UPSET to try and prevent out-of-state meth from getting to Houghton County and busting it when it arrives.

“We currently have two detectives on that team that are assigned to the distribution and sale of any narcotics here in Houghton County,” he said.

Saaranen adds this is only half the battle. Those addicted have to commit to treatment for meth demand to decrease in the county.

“The most important thing to do as a community is to acknowledge that there are these problems within our county,” he said. “It affects a lot of families and a lot of people. Not only is enforcement important, but education and treatment are a huge part of how we are going to be able to solve this problem.”

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Neighboring Baraga County is having the same drug issue. Joseph O’Leary explains that he was elected county prosecutor in 2000.

“Into my first or second year I filed the very first heroin case in the history of Baraga County,” said O’Leary.

Despite it being the fourth least populous county in the state, O’Leary says meth cases are now common.

“In the last six months I have authorized 21 felony charges and 11 of them were meth,” he said.

O’Leary says he does not know exactly how to stop meth from flooding into Baraga County. He adds that meth creates a constant cycle of addiction: users sell to support their own habits, spreading the drug to others while ruining their own lives.

“It is somewhat frightening,” he said. “From what I understand people do this substance once and that is it, they are hooked. I have been told by some addicts that their first high is so incredibly amazing, but they never get there again. They are always chasing it.”

This does not stop O’Leary from staying optimistic about a solution. He says if UPSET, U.P. law enforcement and Wisconsin law enforcement work together, they can stop drugs coming into the U.P. from cities like Milwaukee.

“I think it really takes working with perhaps informants in our area and informants in Wisconsin,” he said. “We need cross-jurisdictional cooperation because it is certainly a problem that is affecting everyone.”

Both Saaranen and O’Leary advise those with any drug-related information to leave a tip on one of Michigan’s crime reporting hotlines. O’Leary says community tips have helped law enforcement seize large shipments of meth multiple times.

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