Our View: Just when there seems to be progress ...
During late January's cold blast, Duluth police called a news conference to drop some chilling statistics: Five people had died from opioid overdoses in Duluth in just the first 23 days of 2019 — the highest number of overdose deaths Duluth had ever seen in a single month. Another 11 who overdosed survived, thanks to the heroic actions of officers and first responders.
The deadly scourge of opioids has been on the public's radar and in the crosshairs of law enforcement, medical professionals, and politicians for years. Millions have been spent nationally to address the epidemic. But progress, often, has been followed by setback. Different challenges have emerged, and effective responses have been unable to keep up.
Duluth's deadliest month, for example, followed a year of promise. Duluth police said they responded to a record 150 overdoses in 2017, but the tally dropped to 92 last year.
In the same way, nationally, after 23 straight years of record-breaking overdose-death tolls, the first half of 2018 saw opioids-related deaths declining slightly with each month, as USA Today reported Jan. 22. The year was a "turning point," the newspaper said.
But, "The number of deaths is still huge," as Daniel Ciccarone of the University of California-San Francisco, a physician who studies opioid use and supply, said in the article.
Encouragingly, in Washington, D.C., in state capitals like St. Paul, and in city halls like Duluth's, the fight continues. Our elected officials aren't throwing up their hands in defeat, and their efforts can be supported publicly.
President Donald Trump highlighted the epidemic in his State of the Union speech. Last year, the Trump administration awarded states and communities $1 billion for treatment and prevention. The administration of President Barack Obama had spent $1 billion on such grants over the two previous years. States provided substantial additional funding, as the USA Today report detailed.
In Duluth, the police, the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force, and others have made opioids one of our community's highest priorities.
And in St. Paul this session, Duluth Rep. Liz Olson introduced a bill to establish an advisory council to distribute grants focused on education, intervention, treatment, training, and prevention. The multi-pronged approach is also to include expanded pain-management services. Last year, Olson was among lawmakers who pressed unsuccessfully for a penny-a-pill fee on the painkillers to generate even more badly needed resources.
"Minnesotans are pleading with us to take action to protect people, and to do this we need a truly comprehensive strategy to save lives," Olson said in a prepared statement two days before the Duluth police press conference. "As families continue to experience unthinkable tragedies, Minnesotans can't wait any longer for comprehensive strategies to end this crisis. I'm confident that we can work together in a bipartisan fashion to take action."
Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken made clear that one target in particular has to be included in any comprehensive strategy.
"If you are a drug dealer, if you're peddling poisons to people in our community ... not only are we coming after you to hold you accountable for the sale of these poisons, but also if ... the narcotic that you sell to someone else causes their death, ... we will also look to prosecute you for homicide," Tusken warned at the press conference.
Comprehensive, bipartisan, and multi-pronged approaches clearly are needed to finally take hold of this deadly, years-old, public-health crisis. With an icy resolve, this scourge can be purged.
"My biggest fear," Bill Kinkle of Pennsylvania said in the USA Today story, "is that we are going to take our foot off the gas."
That can't happen.