Massive marijuana busts near Mitchell ‘pretty common,’ not a cause for concern, Highway Patrol says

"Your community may not be as safe because there's people out there committing these crimes to fuel the drug habit that they have,” Col. Rick Miller said.

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Marijuana plants growing at Leafline Labs in Cottage Grove. Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press

Three large drug busts yielding a total of nearly 300 pounds of marijuana in the Mitchell area this year are nothing out of the ordinary, according to Col. Rick Miller, a former Marine and current superintendent of the South Dakota Highway Patrol.

In March, two Wisconsin men were stopped with 164 pounds of marijuana in their vehicle. In September, two separate stops yielded 53 and 74 pounds of bud . Each of the stops happened on Interstate 90, and all are still currently pending in court.

“It's been pretty common to see those amounts. That's not unheard of with the large amounts of marijuana, as well as some of your hard drugs — cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin,” Miller said.

The South Dakota Highway Patrol has jurisdiction across the state, and — though it’s not officially written into policy — can typically be found patrolling the interstates and state highway system.

Data released by the Highway Patrol shows troopers issued 25 citations for possession of marijuana between one and 10 pounds in 2020. Through Sept. 29 this year, troopers have already issued 26 citations for the same amount.


Citations for possession of amounts over 10 pounds are on the same pace as last year, tallying one every 14 days.

Miller said that combating drug trafficking — which he said can be argued is any amount over 5 pounds — does increase the workload of troopers, but that it can be tough to quantify. He looks to Colorado as evidence of that.

“Colorado is a good indicator as they've had legal marijuana for some time now. And if you look at some of the statistics, they're still seeing high amounts of marijuana seizures,” Miller said. “I think a recent study that I saw was that 5 tons of marijuana was seized in Colorado. So there's a jurisdiction that has legal marijuana, but yet they're still seizing a lot of it that’s black market.”

Interstate 90 is the country’s longest interstate, connecting Boston to Seattle, creating a potential pipeline to funnel drugs across the country. Miller said that troopers in South Dakota and neighboring jurisdictions can only patrol so much space at any given time.

Col. Rick Miller has spent 20 years with the South Dakota Highway Patrol, and now serves as the patrol's superintendent. File photo

“It's not just Interstate 90, it's still on some of our small roadways as well,” Miller said. “Just because the interstate is frequently traveled, some drug carriers or people may say ‘Hey, I'm gonna stay off the interstate,’ and they're on those smaller roads as well, which we’re working just as much as the interstate.”

Miller was hesitant to discuss tactics that the South Dakota Highway Patrol uses to identify potential drug traffickers, but did want to dispel theories that troopers target out-of-state license plates.


“If we isolate one group to stop, we're missing a whole lot, and therefore, we stop everything that we legally can and determine if there's any criminal activity there,” Miller said.

Many incident reports written by troopers say that they witnessed indicators of criminal activity or deployed a trained police K9 to sniff the vehicle for illegal substances. Miller opted not to explain what indicators troopers look for or explain the policy for use of a K9.

Regardless of the tactics, Miller believes that getting drugs off the highways is an important aspect to public safety across the state.

“Drugs are highly addictive, and the need for people that utilize those illegal drugs — they may be addicted, and they may do the things they need to do to get those illegal drugs. Your community may not be as safe because there's people out there committing these crimes to fuel the drug habit that they have,” Miller said. “We feel a part of a way to make communities safer is by taking those illegal drugs off the roadway.”

Possessing between one and 10 pounds of marijuana can result in up to 10 years in prison plus a $20,000 fine. Any amount of 10 pounds can lead to a maximum of 15 years in prison and a $30,000 fine.

A South Dakota native, Hunter joined Forum Communications Company as a reporter for the Mitchell (S.D.) Republic in June 2021 and now works as a digital reporter for Forum News Service, focusing on local news in Sioux Falls. He also writes regional news spanning across the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
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