FARGO - With the West Coast now the new center for marijuana production in the U.S., and stepped-up drug interdiction on the nation's east-west interstates in the South and Midwest, drug traffickers seem intent on turning Interstate 94 into a northern "high" way.
More than half a ton of marijuana alone has been confiscated in the last six months on I-94 from Jamestown to Fargo a roughly 100-mile stretch in North Dakota. A $1.75 million seizure was also made in March 2017 in Minnesota's Otter Tail County, law enforcement officials report.
Capt. Bryan Niewind, commander for the North Dakota Highway Patrol's southeast region, said large-scale growing operations in Mexico for years were the primary large-quantity producers of marijuana. But in recent years, California, Oregon and Washington have become the new center for growing.
With legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational use by more states, Niewind said big drug seizures could become the norm.
"I think this is a new reality," Niewind said.
And as officers get better at identifying drug runners, seizures will increase. Whether it's marijuana, heroin or opioids, "you're going to see more of this in the news," Niewind said.
The most recent big haul of marijuana in North Dakota was 476 pounds seized in a Toyota pickup by the Stutsman County Sheriff's Office about 8 miles east of Jamestown on Sunday, Jan. 21.
On Dec. 13, a Stutsman sheriff's deputy found 198.5 pounds of marijuana being transported in a minivan.
"It is unusual and very concerning to me that this amount of marijuana is moving through our community," Stutsman County Sheriff Chad Kaiser said.
Kaiser said it is no secret illegal drugs can be found in large quantities traveling on the interstate and the north-south U.S. Route 281, which intersects I-94 at Jamestown and ends at the Canadian border.
"The problem is those drugs may pass through here, but eventually they find their way back here," Kaiser said.
On Nov. 21, West Fargo police and the North Dakota Highway Patrol teamed up in an arrest of a driver and seizure of 286 pounds of marijuana worth $1.37 million.
That bust eclipsed a September seizure on I-94 by West Fargo police after a traffic stop. That earlier bust yielded $700,000 in drugs, including 125 pounds of raw marijuana, 2,811 grams, or nearly 6.2 pounds, of marijuana wax, 168 grams of hashish and two vials of marijuana oil.
Jerry Boyer, assistant chief for the West Fargo Police Department, said both of those cases are still making their way through the courts. He said demand for marijuana is pushing the supply efforts.
"It's not slowing down. ... I don't foresee that the trafficking of it is going to decrease at all. I think this is going to continue," Boyer said.
In central North Dakota, Morton County sheriff's deputies seized 30 pounds of marijuana in December, while a February speeding stop on I-94 led to the seizure of more than 4 pounds of methamphetamine worth $500,000. That was estimated to be the largest meth seizure in the Morton County Sheriff's Office's history.
Stepped-up drug interdiction on interstates to the south of North Dakota and Minnesota have made I-94 a more attractive route for drug runners from the West Coast. It doesn't hurt that the interstate runs through Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago, both major drug distribution hubs, Niewind said.
But officers in the region have been trained to watch for indicators of drug activity.
There are a number of driving and equipment violations that can lead to a traffic stop. And officers keep their eyes peeled for indications of drug use, human trafficking, burglary and identity theft, Niewind said.
It doesn't hurt that pot has a scent that's hard to mask.
"A large amount of marijuana will have a smell, and smell is an allowable search item," Niewind said.
When officers have probable cause, they can get a search warrant to bring drug-sniffing dogs onto the scene, Niewind said.
Win some, lose some
But getting a conviction - even with large amounts of dope involved - can be difficult, depending on the state where alleged drug runners are pulled over.
That turned out to be the case in a March 2017 traffic stop by a Minnesota State Patrol trooper near Fergus Falls. The stop led to the seizure of $1.75 million in high-grade marijuana and felony charges against three Twin Cities men.
The 570 pounds of marijuana, likely on its way to the Twin Cities, was shrink-wrapped and stacked inside 18 large duffel bags in the bed of a pickup truck. When investigators unloaded it, the 1.25-pound packages of pot stacked nearly 7 feet high and 10 feet wide.
But the search was later declared to have insufficient cause by a judge the following month, and the cases against the driver of the pickup and two passengers were dismissed, said Michelle Eldien, chief deputy for the Otter Tail County Attorney's Office
Eldien said Minnesota law requires a "reasonable, articulable suspicion" to take each step after a traffic stop to extend the stop.
"It's going to take more than this guy is super nervous and they have plates from Oregon," Eldien said.
Eldien said lawmakers will have to consider rewriting the laws on the books, or the state's appeals courts will have to change their interpretation of state law, for that to change.
"You have to have more than a hunch to get into the cars," Eldien said. "That's where all the case law is getting hot."
No matter what, the defendants won't get their drugs back. They will be destroyed.
"That's gone. They don't get that back. We're not that liberal in Minnesota," Eldien said.
"We have taken a lot of drugs off the road. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that," she said.