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Minnesota officials detail extent of opioid crisis, highlight treatment programs

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota’s opioid epidemic was more deadly than ever in Ramsey County last year, taking the lives of 72 people, a 16 percent increase over the year before.

The urgent need to address the crisis came into sharp focus again Thursday, April 19, as law enforcement officials announced a counterfeit prescription drug containing the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl killed the rock star Prince in 2016.

Authorities said they didn’t have enough evidence to pursue criminal charges in the death.

While detailing a new collaborative to fight the opioid epidemic, Ramsey County Sheriff Jack Serier acknowledge the devastating impact fentanyl and other opioids have had on Minnesota communities.

“It’s an incredibly insidious chemical that is being introduced into other drugs,” Serier said of fentanyl. “This is something that is extremely lethal. It’s a very serious problem.”

‘We are all hope together’

To combat opioid addiction, Ramsey County is partnering with the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, a drug and alcohol treatment organization, to increase community awareness in hopes of stemming the rising tide of opioid overdose deaths.

The effort includes community meetings and advertising in area movie theaters and on social media about the dangers of opioids. Serier said the partnership was part of the hope that can be found when communities organize around a common problem.

“We are hope as government and nonprofits working on opioid addiction. You are hope as community members in fighting opioid addiction. We are all hope together,” he said.

The partnership is just the latest example of the work state, county and local organizations are doing to warn people about the dangers of opioids and help people addicted to the drugs.

Nicholas Warnke, a Forest Lake resident going through a Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge recovery program, shared his story of opioid addiction. He started with alcohol and other drugs, but became an addict after being prescribed painkillers and later turned to injecting heroin.

One of Warnke’s lowest points was when he overdosed in a restaurant bathroom in 2017 while his eight-year-old daughter waited at their table. She saw him taken out unconscious to an ambulance thinking he had died.

“Now she has to live with that memory … that daddy was an addict,” Warnke said. “That’s something I have to live with.”

What are state leaders doing?

Tim Walsh, who leads long-term recovery programs at Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, said his organization and others are working with state and local leaders to make successful treatments more accessible to addicts when they need them most.

County attorneys from around the state, including Ramsey County’s John Choi, are pushing to hold pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and market opioids accountable for the deadly impact they’ve had on communities. Those efforts include lawsuits that claim drug manufacturers mislead doctors and patients about the safety of opioids.

Drug companies have denied those claims.

Addressing the opioid epidemic has also been widely debated at the state Legislature where several proposals are making their way through committees. Those bills would provide new state resources for prevention and recovery programs.

But a “penny-per-pill” fee on opioids to raise up to $20 million to fund treatment efforts has stalled after drug company opposition.