Drug war in the U.P.

GWINN – In an effort to reduce illegal drug use in the Upper Peninsula, a police agency is heightening awareness of growing drug problems by educating people. The Upper Peninsula Substance Enforcement Team, more widely known as UPSET, is getting the word out about the reality of drug abuse in the region.

Representatives from UPSET have been presenting PowerPoint presentations at municipal meetings, at schools, for companies, for senior citizens and anyone else who wants to be informed, said UPSET Commander Det. Lt. Tim Sholander.

“I would like to heighten awareness of drug problems such as the growing meth, heroin, and cocaine problems,” he said. “I think awareness could reduce drug use in communities.”

In 2011, a total of 21 methamphetamine labs were reported to UPSET in its 12-county service area. Last year, that doubled to 42 meth labs being reported to the agency, the majority of them being in Marquette County, said Sholander.

Another example of the growing drug problem, specifically for heroin, is in the northern Lower Peninsula and northern Wisconsin, he said. The city of Menominee has had a huge increase in heroin abuse, Sholander said, adding he’s concerned this trend will come further north.

UPSET has been enforcing drug laws as a regional agency since 1988. It covers 12 counties in the U.P. with the exception of Chippewa, Luce, and Mackinac counties which are served by the Straits Area Narcotics Enforcement Team, also known as SANE.

“The purpose of UPSET was to basically try to enforce the drug laws and assist other agencies with major cases such as armed robberies and homicide,” explained Sholander.

“UPSET helps out agencies throughout the U.P. by coming together with them to share information, pull our resources together, and provide undercover officers for other areas,” he added.

The UPSET team is made up of officers from the Michigan State Police force and one officer from each of the following local agencies: Escanaba Public Safety, Delta County Sheriff Department, Marquette County Sheriff Department, Marquette City Police, and Menominee City Police.

Each member of the team is specially trained to investigate drug crimes and conduct undercover surveillance, said Sholander. Officers execute search warrants in drug busts. Fugitive sweeps – widespread arrests of criminals – are also conducted by UPSET in cooperation with local agencies.

Members of the UPSET team are also certified to clean up meth labs which can cost between $3,000 to $10,000, he said.

UPSET conducts flyovers across the Upper Peninsula in search of illegal marijuana grows, Sholander said. The team uses helicopters from the Michigan State Police and the National Guard.

With the growing drug abuse and the rising number of crimes, UPSET has been stretching its budget with its staff and resources, said Sholander who would like to have more members on the team.

“UPSET needs to have sustainable future funding to remain in the U.P.,” he commented, adding the region’s drug problem is only escalating as new synthetic drugs are developed like K2, Spice and Bath Salts.

UPSET’s funding is allocated on a yearly basis. The agency currently has a $188,000 operating budget to fund vehicles, travel costs, the Gwinn office building, cell phones, equipment, and other expenses, said Sholander.

In addition to some state funding, the agency receives monies from grants, forfeitures, private donations, and local community contributions. Even though UPSET is considered a non-profit organization, it cannot apply for all grants, he added.

“We do need that public funding to come in so we can continue to operate… and give back to help those communities in need,” said Sholander.

An annual Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant – reduced this year to $248,000 – helps reimburse local police agencies for the wages of their employees who are members of the UPSET team, he added. Byrne was a New York cop who was killed during a drug investigation.

Sholander said UPSET is looking for funding sources and accepts donations which can be mailed to P.O. Box 364, Gwinn, MI 49841.

The agency is always open to anonymous crime tips as well, he added. The tip line can be reached at (906) 346-9289. The same number can be used to arrange for public presentations on drug abuse in the region.

Sholander has been commander at UPSET since September. He replaced Det. 1st Lt. George Sailer who was promoted to the Michigan State Police District Headquarters in Marquette where he overseas criminal investigations throughout the U.P.

Sholander previously served on the Huron Undercover Team in Alpena after working four years on the governor’s security detail.

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Jenny Lancour, (906) 786-2021, ext. 143,