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Paine, Fennessey advance in Superior mayoral primary

Local view: Is Duluth's flash of violence due to opiate, heroin epidemic?

LaVerne (Verne) Wagner of Duluth is the former northern Minnesota director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests; is a community representative to an opiate and heroin task force that serves St. Louis County called Opiate Advisory Response Strategies, or OARS; and started with his wife a support group for the families and friends who've lost loved ones to addiction after a relative became addicted to crystal meth.

The recent shootings and drug busts in Duluth have residents commenting and blaming our mayor and other elected officials for allowing folks from cities like Chicago to come to Duluth to sell drugs and to bring their criminal behavior.

But the blame for the violence does not belong with the mayor, police chief or other officials. This is happening nationwide. The opiate and heroin epidemic has hit everywhere. It's no longer a large-city problem. It's now also terrorizing small-town and rural America.

The blame is shared by all of us.

The U.S. makes up less than 5 percent of the world's population but consumes 91 percent of the world's hydrocodone and other synthetic forms of heroin prescribed by our medical community; 70 percent of all heroin addicts start on prescribed opiates, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The medical community has, in part, admitted it is to blame for this epidemic.

But those of us who keep unused pills in our medicine cabinets also are to blame. So are pharmacists for not tracking the overuse of opiate prescriptions. And government officials at all levels for their slow responses.

I am a community volunteer member of an opiate and heroin task force serving St. Louis County, called Opiate Advisory Response Strategies, or OARS. It consists of representatives from health and human services, private and government agencies, the medical community, chemical dependency advocacy, and law enforcement. Our expertise can help suggest and develop working strategies, but we lack funding. Our commitment is excellent, but we all have full-time, busy occupations and can only share so much while keeping up with workloads.

According to law enforcement, we cannot arrest our way out of this epidemic. So how do we fix it? How do we stop drug dealers from coming to the Twin Ports?

First, we need adequate treatment centers for addicts. Currently, there's a five- to seven-week waiting list to get into treatment when addicts need treatment immediately. We also must offer several types of treatment, from medically assisted treatment to the 12-step approach, or some combination. Long-term support also is critical to an addict's success. The medical community must be more active.

We also must stop the stigma of shame of those who suffer from addiction. There is no special population addiction attacks. It has no boundaries regarding age, race, religion, sex, or economic wealth.

We also must stop drug dealers from coming into our cities. We can do this by calling 911 and reporting suspicious people and behavior in our neighborhoods. We might consider putting a reward out for repeat offenders who keep coming back. We have to make Duluth and Superior a lousy place for illegal activity. By reducing the number of addicts through treatment and by educating our children about these drugs, we also can cut demand and make it no longer profitable for dealers here.

Opiate and heroin addiction is costing taxpayers in increased law enforcement, foster care, and more. And it's killing our loved ones who overdose.

St. Louis County has one of the highest rates in Minnesota of children in foster care. We can only imagine how this trauma is affecting these children both in school performance and with their future mental health.

Our communities seem to have lost their innocence and safety. We must get that back — and now, not next year.

There's a passage in the AA Big Book: "Half measures avail us nothing; we stood at the turning point." We are at that turning point. Our elected leaders must do more than half measures. We cannot rely on the cops or social workers to fix this. The medical community must commit both financially and with staff to assist addicts and families in finding long-term solutions.

Treating an overdosed addict in the ER and then discharging him with no help is not saving a life. That is not a long-term solution. That is reckless and leads to more overdoses and deaths.

It takes a village, and we in the community need to demand more and step up to assist each other with support. There is plenty of blame to go around, and we all share some of it. The good news is we can fix this if we get serious.

Is Duluth's recent increase in shootings an anomaly or just another symptom of this opiate and heroin epidemic? We cannot afford to wait to find out.

LaVerne (Verne) Wagner of Duluth is the former northern Minnesota director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests; is a community representative to an opiate and heroin task force that serves St. Louis County called Opiate Advisory Response Strategies, or OARS; and started with his wife a support group for the families and friends who've lost loved ones to addiction after a relative became addicted to crystal meth.

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