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White House drug czar Jim Carroll visited St. Paul Tuesday to meet with Minnesota law enforcement, recovery workers and tribal leaders as the COVID-19 pandemic fuels historic levels of drug trafficking and overdoses across the United States.

Carroll, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy for President Donald Trump, said in an interview that international drug traffickers have been flooding the borders — especially the northern border — over the past six months in an effort to exploit potential security weaknesses as the nation responded to COVID-19.

“We’re seeing these drug traffickers who think we’re letting our guard down, and we’re not,” said Carroll.

Carroll held listening sessions with those on the front lines of the drug epidemic at Minnesota Recovery Connection headquarters, which he said will help inform the national strategy on how to disrupt the supply chain and the devastation that follows in its wake. He planned to fly back to Washington, D.C., Tuesday evening.

As of Aug. 31, one month before the end of the fiscal year, law enforcement had seized 141,600 pounds of methamphetamine in the United States — already more than twice as much as in all of 2019, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. Fentanyl seizures were up 30% from fiscal year 2019, though heroin is down significantly.

As the United States government has focused on locking down the southern border — where the cartel supply chain to places like Minnesota often begins — traffickers are deluging the U.S.-Canadian border, said Carroll.

Border Patrol ports in Buffalo, N.Y., saw a 4,000% increase from March 21 to June 14 compared with the same time last year.

“Drug trafficking is really sort of like squeezing a balloon,” Carroll said. “If you eliminate it here, they’re going to try to pop up someplace else.”

In recent years, cartels have established Minnesota as a hub for meth distribution. The state’s multijurisdictional Violent Crime Enforcement Teams, which target drug and gang crime, impounded 1,706 pounds of meth in 2019, a 49% increase from 2018 and a 625% rise over the past five years, according to Department of Public Safety data released earlier this year.

In the meeting Tuesday morning, law enforcement leaders expressed concern about the growing problem of cartel meth originating from below the southwestern border, Carroll said. They also requested assistance in support services for the number of incarcerated people suffering from addiction.

The pandemic has created a perfect storm of conditions causing a surge in fatal overdoses, Carroll said. Drugs are widely available, while people are living more isolated lives and losing their social support networks. Higher unemployment rates mean less access to health care, and, especially at the start of the pandemic, many treatment centers limited their services for the safety of other patients.

Carroll said the White House has been working to steer better response to addiction challenges during the pandemic, including issuing guidance to ensure personal productive equipment was getting to treatment centers. His office helped create instructions for first responders on how to safely administer naloxone, a nasal treatment that counteracts a drug overdose, without contracting COVID-19.

“We’re being very proactive here,” he said.

Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036