For The Daily News
L'ANSE - Drug abuse is a growing problem in several southern Upper Peninsula counties, and according to Tim Sholander, the problem continues to make its way north.
Sholander, detective lieutenant and team commander of the Upper Peninsula Substance Enforcement Team, presented details about the drug problem to the Baraga County Board of Commissioners in an effort to both inform and solicit funds from the board.
"I'm here to ask for a little help," Sholander said. "Nickels and dimes is all I'm asking for sometimes. I'm not trying to break anybody's budget. ... We want to be a part of this county as much as we can and we need funding to do that."
UPSET covers 12 U.P. counties (Straits Area Narcotics Enforcement takes care of Luce, Chippewa and Mackinac counties) - the largest zone of any drug team east of the Mississippi - and works with local agencies on a primary objective, according to Sholander of "trying to find those major users that deteriorate communities."
In Dickinson County, drug cases are primarily handled by the Kingsford-Iron Mountain-Norway-Dickinson County (KIND) Drug Enforcement Team.
Sholander noted increasing prevalence of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, prescription drugs and medical marijuana, which he wants to inform the public about, along with their damaging effects.
"We're trying to educate people that this is a huge problem," Sholander said.
He said several large cocaine busts have taken place in the U.P. already, and meth continues to be of particular concern in Marquette County.
"Meth is the biggest problem that we're starting to see," he said. "Marquette County has been the one that's seen it the worst because out of the 41-42 labs we have this year, 30-plus of them have happened in Marquette County."
"We're starting to spot them all over the place," he said.
Heroin has been a particular problem in Menominee County, so much so that 25 percent of UPSET's arrests have been in Menominee County.
"Menominee has a huge heroin problem and it's all filtering all the way up north," he said. "It used to be the drug you only hear about in Detroit and Chicago and Milwaukee."
"They're happening further and further north and we're seeing more and more users," Sholander said.
He called medical marijuana a "pain in the butt" because it's a "work-in-progress law" that's frustrating to drug teams, people who want to use it correctly, prosecutors and even judges.
"I don't think they've got that law figured out," he said.
Sholander pointed out that UPSET already has a "very strong presence" in Baraga County, and it can have a big impact in part because UPSET team members are deputized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Accordingly, they can work on tribal land.
He said UPSET is not a 501(c)3 organization, but acts essentially as a nonprofit and relies largely on donations from local government units. Baraga County has not donated in several years based partially on the recommendation of Sheriff Bob Teddy, but the board will consider options this year.
Board member Paul Tesanovich, a former state representative and county board member who made his return to the board, raised concern about UPSET's effectiveness.
"We're not winning," he said. "People are using. We tried prohibition. It's always been that way that certain people are going to use something to alter their minds in one way or the other. I'm just throwing it out for argument, but after hearing that by making certain drugs harder (to access) you can drive users to others, I'm wondering why over the years as part of an overall strategy to address this there wasn't efforts to maybe drive and manage people to some extent to go to the least harmful drug, which I would suspect is marijuana."
Sholander maintained all enforcement efforts are worthwhile.
"There's a fight on drugs, and I'll agree with you that there's some loss there, there's a lot of loss there, but as far as saving smaller communities, there's still hope and I believe there's a good fight to be fought," he said.
In 2012, UPSET handled 242 complaints, made 435 arrests and executed 40 search warrants. Drug tips can be called in to the Gwinn-based unit by calling 346-9289. Donations may be made to P.O. Box 346, Gwinn, MI 49841.