Two federal grants totaling more than $1.5 million are aimed at fighting the opioid crisis in rural northern Minnesota, including northern St. Louis County and the Bois Forte Reservation.

Laura Palombi
Laura Palombi
It's an acknowledgment that the epidemic has particularly impacted the region, said Laura Palombi, an assistant professor at the Duluth campus of the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy who is co-leading the effort.

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"I grew up in Northeastern Minnesota, and I always thought that drug abuse was something that was located in the Twin Cities," Palombi said in an interview. "But when you actually look at a map of the impact of the opioid crisis in our state, Northeastern Minnesota's rural communities are hit quite hard."

In a June 2018 report, the Minnesota Center for Rural Policy and Development noted that the death toll from opioids, heroin and psychostimulants had increased by almost 495 percent in the seven-county metro area between 2000 and 2016. In the rest of Minnesota, it had increased by 1,155 percent.

The two-year grants, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration were awarded jointly to the College of Pharmacy and University of Minnesota Extension. The former is targeted to Aitkin and Itasca counties; the latter to those two counties plus northern St. Louis County, Pine County and the Bois Forte and Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Palombi said.

Those areas face challenges urban centers don't, Palombi said.

"The rural communities generally have fewer resources for people with substance use disorder," she said. "There's fewer treatment locations. There's less access to evidence-based treatment such as medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder. There's unique barriers to living in a rural community that we just don't see in Duluth, for example. Transportation can be a major barrier for people."

Jennifer Garbow
Jennifer Garbow
Jennifer Garbow, a Bois Forte member who has worked for University of Minnesota Extension for 11 years out of Bemidji, will lead the efforts with the two bands. Three Native American women have been hired to work with her in what's being called the American Indian Resource and Resilience Team.

"We really have this dream team," Garbow said in an interview. "I've been the only American Indian person in family development (at Extension) for a very, very long time, and I'm so excited to be working with them on such an important issue."

The project will include specific methods, such as community forums, workshops and educational events, Palombi said. But much is being left to what the communities determine as the process unfolds, she and Garbow said.

"Unfortunately a lot of projects, they already have it figured out, they have the money and they're going to come in and they're going to solve and fix everything," Garbow said. "And that's definitely not our approach."

It won't be "one size fits all," Palmobi said.

"I think sometimes we think that if we just come up with the right drug or if we just figure out prescribing that we're just going to solve the opioid crisis," she said. "But really, I've been doing this for a few years now, and I really think that this community approach is where we've got to be."