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Community debates, ponders how to fight opiate scourge

Ricky Defoe addresses the crowd at the Carlton County Opiod and Heroin Community Forum held Monday at the Forestry Center. Jana Peterson/

Looking out at close to 250 people gathered for the Carlton County Opioid and Heroin Community Forum Monday, Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek threw out his plans to get technical about heroin and other opiate-based drugs and how they get into our community.

“I’m impressed and surprised at the number of people here,” he said, addressing the crowd in the Cloquet Forestry Center lecture hall, where it was standing room only. “And it shows us very clearly that there’s a very serious concern that we have to address here.”

Some in attendance came simply to learn more about the issues of heroin, methadone and other opiate abuse that have plagued Carlton County — and much of the rest of the country — in recent years. Others came because they’ve been touched by drug addiction, either personally or through friends and family. While the discussions were informative and impassioned, no one left with any clear answers, just more ideas to explore.

Four members of the Carlton County Drug Abuse Task Force spoke as panelists, including Stracek, Rick Colsen, director of the TagWii treatment center on the Fond du Lac Reservation; Dr. Elisabeth Bilden, a medical toxicologist and emergency medicine physician at Essentia who also works as a consultant with Minnesota Poison Control; and Kim Munoz, a clinical social worker with Carlton County.

Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa member and spiritual leader Ricky Defoe also addressed the crowd, telling them how his daughter died from a heroin overdose almost exactly two years ago.

His daughter had been in and out of jail, he said, targeted by a white informant who set her up, but he realized she was truly addicted when he picked her up and she asked him to take her to a doctor in Superior and talked about getting suboxone, a drug used to treat people addicted to opiates. While he shouldered some blame himself, citing his own addiction to beer when he was younger, he also blamed society and its treatment of Native American people.

When she died, he said, she recently had gotten out of rehab because she tested positive for morphine. Her attorney argued that she should not go to jail, her father said he argued with the judge to hold her in a facility here in Carlton County.

“The attorney argued better,” Defoe said. “I think about how all those things tied together … it may seem like I’m blaming the system but it does have flaws.”

His wasn’t the only terrible story, just the first. As the evening wore on, people started opening up. One mom talked about turning her son into the police for selling drugs, and another was in tears as she told how she’s at her wits end and doesn’t know what to do about her daughter who is addicted to drugs.

“I lost my seven-month-old grandchild because of it,” she said, explaining later that he suffocated six years ago but not how. “I’ve been in the courtroom, gone to the police, human services. I ask for higher bail when she goes to jail. I have begged for them to put her in treatment. They say if she wants it, she can go. She doesn’t want it. She runs the streets, homeless. She could live with any of us. Your head turns. Nobody can help you.”

She told the crowd how her beautiful and athletic daughter went from a straight-A student to drugs.

“I feel for you,” said a voice from the back of the room. “I had to sign my granddaughter into treatment. She hated me.”

The voice noted that it takes two family members’ signatures to sign someone into lockdown treatment “but they have to want it,” she added. “I’m 28 years sober, but some people don’t want help. You just have to hope and pray that they do someday.”

Panel members talked about their experiences and perspectives on the problem, and offered some fairly shocking statistics at times.

Bilden said heroin abuse has almost quadrupled since 2002, and more than 8,000 people died from heroin overdose in 2013 across the country. The numbers are likely higher, she said, because heroin breaks down into morphine quickly in the body. Heroin use by people ages 18-25 had doubled in the last decade, she said.

In 2008, Colsen said, Carlton County led the state in the number of methadone related deaths with 11 overdoses.

He talked about how the United States consumes 80 percent of the world’s illegal drugs and almost

100 percent of its pain medications.

He also talked about opiates, explaining how much they appeal to the user.

“On the dopamine scale, food is between 1-10,” he said. “Sex is between 10-50. Depending on the brain, heroin is between 250 and 10,000. And our brains are wired to seek pleasure.”

Throughout the forum, people offered some ideas for addressing the problem of heroin and opiate use.

One person talked about going to a casino outside of Carlton County and seeing a K-9 dog running loose outside the casino while its police officer partner looked on.

“The officer said it has really lowered the drug incidents there,” she said. “... The drugs come right up I-35. How many drug-related calls per week come from our casino? I just want to find ways to help.”

Stracek, who served as commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force before coming to Cloquet, told the crowd it’s not as simple as one might think to enforce drug and violent crime laws.

“If it were, we wouldn’t be having the problems we are having today,” he said. “The laws in place aren’t really designed to help people that have addiction issues. They’re designed to hold accountable those who make a lot of money and use violence in our community to do so by selling drugs.

“Those truly are the goals, I think, of law enforcement is to go after those who choose that path. But sometimes people who have addictions get pulled into that realm.”

More than once, the subject of having a detox center in Carlton County came up.

An audience member told how her daughter tried to get off drugs and she tried to help her, but the pain of withdrawal was so bad that she left to get high. If there had been a detox center where they could go, or ask questions, maybe things would have been different.

Another audience member suggested getting a “meth mobile,” like a book mobile, so people wouldn’t have to take long bus rides to Bemidji and St. Cloud to fill methadone prescriptions to treat their opiate addiction.

Colsen cautioned against encouraging people to treat their addictions to heroin or other opiates with methadone, which is also an opiate and used illegally to get high by some. He didn’t seem to favor medically assisted programs for addiction, at least those using liquid methadone.

“It’s not stopping the addiction, it’s not reprogramming the brain, it’s not starting withdrawal,” he said.

Prevention, of course, was a topic, and how to stop kids from ever getting hooked on drugs. Education efforts are ramping up, more than one person said.

More treatment centers, readily available treatment and a wider range of treatment options are other solutions that found support in the audience and the panel.

Stracek talked about trying to stop the numbers of addicted from increasing.

“We have to find a way to keep them from having to go on the methadone program,” he said. “We also have to look at why we’re going to drugs as a solution to all our problems, why we are using drugs recreationally and why we’re looking at drugs, especially the gateway drugs, as not really such a big deal.”

Noting first that he didn’t want to get into a debate about marijuana, he cited a local study from 2013 in which the numbers of marijuana users in the high school age demographic were surprising.

That worries him.

And, while not everyone in the crowd agreed with his worries about gateway drugs, there was a very real concern for young people echoed again and again as the night wore on.

“I no longer look to the young people and say ‘I hope you become a doctor, I hope you become a police officer, I hope you become a teacher,’” Defoe said. “Now my hope is that the young people live into adulthood.”