TRAVERSE CITY — Population size doesn't matter as much as the connections that major drug suppliers have in any given area.
That could be why despite Cadillac's relatively small size, it has become a hub of drug activity for the entire region.
Or "mini-hub," in the words of Steven VerDow, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency's Detroit office, who was visiting Traverse City Thursday to meet with members of the media and discuss the federal agency's efforts to combat drug activity in Northern Michigan.
"It's the way the drugs are moved around," Verdow said. "It's really contingent on who has the connections."
Year after year, Wexford County's drug-related arrests as reported by local police and the Traverse Narcotics Team consistently rival and even surpass those reported in Grand Traverse County, which has nearly three times the population.
Does that mean there are more connections in Cadillac between small-time dealers and large-scale distributors than there are in Grand Traverse County? VerDow said that's entirely possible but given the small size of the community, it's hard to say for sure.
"It's hard to get an overall picture in smaller areas (compared to major population centers)," VerDow said. "But we're getting a better idea what is going on in this area."
The DEA opened an office in Traverse City for the first time in 2018 in response to increased meth and heroin activity in the region.
At the time, Timothy Plancon, special agent in charge of the Detroit Field Division, said the opening of an office in Traverse City would enable them to expand the scope of their investigations significantly in the region.
Plancon indicated they would focus extensively on cases involving the trafficking of opioids and meth into Northern Michigan from downstate and other countries, notably Mexico, where cartels have been able to corner the market on meth production.
On Thursday, VerDow said what they've found so far since 2018 is that the Cadillac region is a "microcosm" of places around the country that are experiencing the same trend — a swell of meth use and addiction that has largely surpassed opioid use.
Local prosecutors have noted this trend: Wexford County Prosecutor Corey Wiggins said recently that almost half of all drug cases he sees nowadays are meth cases. Osceola County Prosecutor Anthony Badovinac said meth activity increased dramatically since 2018, going from 29 cases a year to 74 in 2020.
"Meth is now the number one drug of choice among virtually all age groups..." Badovinac said. "It is meth that is the problem these days and the crimes it gives birth to."
"The transition to meth here is a direct reflection of what's going on in larger cities," VerDow said. "It's not just a rural problem anymore."
Supervisory Special Agent Joe Dixon said the partnerships the DEA has formed with agencies such as TNT have been invaluable in helping them root out drug dealers in Northern Michigan.
"The message we want to get out there is that if you peddle poison, we're going to aggressively pursue you," Dixon said. "We've had considerable drug busts here, with a nexus to Cadillac and the surrounding area."
To highlight some of the techniques law enforcement use to detect the presence of drugs and other substances, Michigan State Police Trooper Matt Unterbrink brought along Ox and Lulu, his K-9 partners, for a demonstration.
For the first demonstration, Ox located a bag of cocaine that was planted in the front passenger seat of a vehicle. For the second demonstration, Lulu found a bag of smokeless powder (often used in pipe bombs, ammunition and other explosives) that Unterbrink had hidden on the property. When Lulu found the bag, she did not touch it but rather sat straight up to let Brink know of her discovery. She was rewarded with a chew toy.
Unterbrink said Lulu was used several months ago to scout property in Luther connected to a suspect who allegedly conspired with others to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Lulu went from building to building sniffing out potential explosives. Unterbrink said there didn't turn out to be any explosives on the premises.