Overdose deaths on the rise in north-central Minnesota

The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension on Jan. 25 requested public help after 35 overdoses in north-central Minnesota since Dec. 1, 2022.

A bottle with pills spilling out.
A rise of opiate and fentanyl use in north central Minnesota has led to an increase in overdose deaths, authorities reported.
Contributed / Metro Newspaper Service

BRAINERD, Minn. — After nine fatal overdoses in less than two months in north-central Minnesota, the Paul Bunyan Drug Task Force partnered with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension asking for help as they work to keep people alive.

“This is not a problem that we can police our way out of,” said Capt. Joe Kleszyk, commander of the Paul Bunyan Drug Task Force, a law enforcement cooperative that covers several north-central Minnesota counties. “If neighbors know anything, if people know anything, or if family knows anything, we need to find the people that are doing this. And as a community, we really need to let these drug dealers know that it's not acceptable to bring this poison to us.”

Methamphetamine problem (Republic photo illustration)
Methamphetamine in a bag.

Kleszyk has been the commander of the Paul Bunyan Drug Task Force since 2019 and said he sees a trend in the rise of opiate and fentanyl use in their area. Though methamphetamine use in the area remains high, he is concerned that without public help, the opioid problem will continue to get worse.

“Both those drugs are gonna kill you, but fentanyl seems to be doing it a lot quicker than methamphetamine,” Kleszyk said.

Though it has changed over the years, in 2022 the Paul Bunyan Drug Task Force was made up of law enforcement personnel from Beltrami, Cass, Hubbard, Koochiching and Mahnomen counties, Leech Lake Reservation, White Earth Reservation, International Falls, Park Rapids, and Bemidji. The task force also has an agent assigned to them from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and an analyst from the Minnesota National Guard counter-drug team.


The area has a high amount of poverty and controlled substance use often mirrors those rates, Kleszyk said. Their goal is to focus on mid- to upper-level drug dealers distributing drugs in their area.

“We have people that come to this area from throughout the Midwest to prey on our people,” Kleszyk said.

With opiates, the task force saw 26 overdoses in 2019 and five deaths. In 2020, there were 88 overdoses and 15 deaths. In 2021, there were 158 overdoses and 24 deaths.

Those numbers represent only those incidents the task force was involved with, Kleszyk said, and may not represent all the overdose deaths in the area.

Opioids remain a major public health challenge in Minnesota and nationwide, but Little Falls and several greater Minnesota communities are showing real progress is possible, the Minnesota Department of Health recently reported.
Contributed / Metro Creative Graphics, Inc.

In 2022, the task force investigated 168 overdoses and 28 deaths. Not included in those totals, Kleszyk said, were another 14 overdose deaths on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. That’s 42 overdose deaths in the area in 2022.

Deaths are the main thing he is trying to prevent, Kleszyk said, and he referenced Minnesota’s Good Samaritan law, also known as Steve’s Law. According to the Minnesota Department of Health , Steve’s Law was passed in 2014 and provides limited protections to people who call 911 and/or administer naloxone in response to a suspected or known drug overdose. Naloxone is a medication used to reverse or reduce the effects of opioids.

“We're not going to come there and arrest them because they're addicted, they're using and they called for help,” Kleszyk said. “That's a plug. I wish everybody knew that because, you know, out of those 28 fatal overdoses, inevitably, one or more — there was probably somebody who was scared to get the help. And, you know, if they had gotten that help, they might be here today.”

Tim Speier joined the Brainerd Dispatch in October 2021, covering Public Safety.
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