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Our View: How to win war on drugs

Yes, we can win the war on drugs, Duluth's top cop, Chief Mike Tusken, said as the featured speaker at a Chamber-sponsored luncheon this week at the Kitchee Gammi Club.

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Cameron Cardow/Cagle Cartoons

Yes, we can win the war on drugs, Duluth's top cop, Chief Mike Tusken, said as the featured speaker at a Chamber-sponsored luncheon this week at the Kitchee Gammi Club.

Really? We can? Because that war was launched eight presidents and 46 years ago, and we don't seem to have made much progress.

"Last year we doubled down on the number of arrests, the number of search warrants, and the number of guns seized on search warrants related to heroin trafficking in Duluth. We did a tremendous job," Tusken argued. "Our violent crimes task force works around the clock to enforce the laws related to opioids."

However, the chief also opined that, "You can never arrest your way out of a drug problem. It can't be done. In 1971, (President) Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs. It's 2017, and we've not eradicated drugs in this country. You're not going to be able to arrest your way out."

But a three-pronged approach can be effective, Tusken said: "You have to do enforcement, a very important component of it. You have to do education. And you have to have treatment to get your community well."

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Enforcement has been stepped up here in Duluth and across the Northland. Crime stats show it has been effective. Education is about to include a new and hopefully more-effective and less-criticized D.A.R.E. program with schoolkids, the chief said.

"And then there's the treatment component," he continued. "That's something we're lacking in our community. If you need treatment today, we can't get you in. ... It takes time, sometimes two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, to get you into a bed where you can get rehab, where you can get recovery."

So Duluth is winning on two of three fronts, according to the chief.

It was an assessment Mayor Emily Larson echoed at her State of the City Address last month. She listed addressing heroin, opioids and other drug woes among her top three priorities this year.

"Our commitment as a city is to work with St. Louis County, the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment, the 6th Judicial Court, local hospitals, and other partners to create an opioid withdrawal unit, a safe place for those who overdose and want help to go medically withdraw and be connected seamlessly to other support and resources," she said.

A summit is being planned for June to bring together political leaders, government officials, drug-treatment experts, educators, advocates, and others who can identify effective ways to counter opioid, heroin, and other drug use here.

"We're going to get into a room and we're going to figure out what that looks like, to make our community a little bit more responsive to and help start the healing process of this opioid epidemic in our city," Tusken said. "And it is an epidemic. It is killing people. It is very serious. And that is why we are spending so much time and resources trying to stem the tide of these poisons."

Deaths from heroin and opioid drug overdoses have more than doubled in St. Louis County in just the past few years. St. Louis County is now the deadliest county in Minnesota for opioid addicts, with 13.4 deaths per 100,000 population, according to Tusken.

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He bristled at a suggestion from a luncheon attendee, though, of legalizing or decriminalizing drugs as a way to turn the toll.

"There are unintended consequences," he said, pointing to an uptick in traffic fatalities in Colorado after it legalized the recreational use of marijuana. His claim is backed up by FactCheck.org, which reported late last summer that from 2006 to 2014, marijuana-related traffic deaths increased by 154 percent, from 37 fatalities in 2006 to 94 in 2014.

Also, "Any time you legalize something, decriminalize something, (kids) are going to have more access to it," the chief warned. "Is (legalizing drugs) an approach that this country is going to have to look at, potentially, someday? Maybe. Maybe there'll be research to show that's the direction we should go. Right now, we're not there, certainly not there in this country. But we could be."

The Minnesota Legislature this year briefly discussed legalizing the recreational use of marijuana here. Such a move certainly would qualify as a new and different approach. That alone makes it worth at least considering. Clearly, what we've been doing during our more than 4½-decade war on drugs hasn't been working.

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