Opioids hot topic at Ely drug forum

BABBITT police chief Chad Loewen asks a question prior to the drug forum on Wednesday night.

by Nick Wognum -

A public forum in Ely on illegal opioid and methamphetamine use was poorly attended but contained some interesting discussions.
Held on Wednesday night, there were fewer than 50 people in attendance.
A panel discussion included three graduates of Ely high school answering questions from the audience.
The moderator was Jeff Polcher, substance abuse prevention and intervention social worker for St. Louis County.
“Right now we’re in an epidemic, some would disagree but the numbers don’t lie. There were 632 overdoses in Minnesota last year,” said Polcher.
Panelists George Burger of the Ely Police Department, Laura Palombi, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy in Duluth and Stacy Sundquist of the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office all graduated from Ely. Dave Archambault of the Range Treatment Center is from Ely as well.
Burger said the EPD is seeing an increase in drugs and that he has pulled people over who were driving under the influence of drugs.
“We’re not only worried about alcohol impaired driving but drug impaired driving too,” said Burger.
Palombi, a 1997 Ely graduate, said she is working to get information out to both the public and the medical profession.
“And we’re looking to see if there’s an interest in starting a coalition in Ely on opioid use and misuse,” said Palombi. “This affects all of us and it’s taking a lot of lives. We’re seeing what we can do together to find solutions.”
Sundquist said she has seen how opioid addiction hits every part of a person’s life. A new “drug court” has been set up to give someone intensive support instead of sending them to jail in hopes they don’t re-offend.
She said oftentimes if people can’t get pain pills they turn to heroin and that offenders are often young people.
“I always tell parents we’re not trying to make criminals out of kids, we’re just trying to get them on the right track,” said Sundquist.
The courts and the jails are clogged with drug offenders.
“We’re also being as aggressive as we can to prosecute higher level offenders,” said Sundquist. “If we put everyone who was a drug offender in jail we’d be more overcrowded that we are. That’s why we’re looking at other options.”
Archambault said the Range Treatment Center has a 12 bed detox and a 20 beds for 28-day in-patient treatment.
“The problem with methamphetamine and opioids is it’s killing the user, an addict’s brain is trying to kill them. The brain tells them to keep using but it’s ruining their life.”
Jeff Kazel of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force said his group has now merged with the Boundary Waters Drug Task Force.
He explained that opioids, whether in the form of heroin, morphine, oxycontin or Loracet all come from the poppy plant. He said the drugs are often prescribed after a surgery and doctors do not understand the addiction rate.
“The more access (to drugs) the more people become addicted,” said Kazel.
He urged people to correctly dispose of unneeded pills. There is a drop box at the Ely police department.
Kazel said one of his task force investigators had a party and three days later one of the people at the party came to his house and returned oxycontin pills that had been in his medicine cabinet from a neck surgery.
“If you’re holding on to them and you don’t need them, get rid of them,” said Kazel.
Polcher said drug problems in St. Louis County have created a high number of children in foster care. “Right now there are 875 children in St. Louis County in foster care. From a social standpoint that is huge and the financial cost is in the tens of millions of dollars,” said Polcher.
He said treatment is also expensive and there’s a backlog to get people in to programs. During the waiting period the people are still using drugs and the kids are in foster care.
Questions from the audience started with what is being done to educate school kids.
Kazel said it’s important to “teach kids that the pill in the medicine cabinet is no different than heroin.”
He added that the task force has its sights set on big dealers, not users. “We need to reduce the pool of demand by getting people into treatment. There’s got to be other solutions than arresting our way out of the problem.”
Burger said the EPD has hired an officer who will be working in the Ely school district.
“That’s one of the goals of Chief (John) Lahtonen is to get someone in the schools as much as we can,” said Burger.
He said education needs to focus on the “why” drugs are bad and explain to them what using does to a person.
“Opioids restrict your pupils so you can’t see as well in the dark. Kids are curious and they want to know those things,” said Burger.
Polcher said there was a recent incident where a four year-old witnessed an overdose in a city park in Hibbing.
“Seeing an overdose to addiction is scary as hell,” said Polcher. “No four year-olds should see that but it’s happening every day.”
Kazel answered a question on doctors prescribing too many pills. He said doctors need to be trained on addiction consequences. A new test is being developed for surgical patients to see if their DNA includes an addictive nature.
“We had a kid in Duluth who hurt his knee and was prescribed oxycodone and two years later he’s trying to score heroin,” said Kazel.
One of the audience questions dealt with calling the police with tips on someone cooking or selling meth. He was frustrated that arrests hadn’t been made.
“I don’t know your case but there’s a lot of things that go into a drug case…they’re very difficult to prosecute,” said Kazel. “I would ask you to continue to give that information and don’t stop.”
“People come up to me on a weekly basis and say so and so is selling meth. I ask them how do you know and they say they heard it from somebody. I ask who and they say they can’t tell me,” said Burger. “We have to follow procedural law issues to get them. We can’t just go into somebody’s house to see if they’re making meth.”
A different viewpoint on opioids came from an unidentified audience member who said he suffered from chronic back pain and has had seven surgeries.
“There seems to be a movement that all people who use opioids are bad persons. One thing no one has addressed is chronic pain people,” he said.
“Pain management is needed,” said Kazel. “I feel bad for you in that position. There’s people who will be on opioids for the rest of their lives and that’s not a bad thing.”
Polcher asked, “If you’re pain ceased would you still want to use opioids?”
The answer was no because of the side effects including memory loss and dry mouth. He added that people who have pain do not get the high from opiates. He compared it to gun control, where guns are cited as the problem.
The issue of police respone was again raised and Burger gave an example of receiving a call that someone wearing a backpack was selling drugs.
“If I went up to that person and checked their backpack and sent that report to Mrs. Sundquist she would tell me I violated his rights,” said Burger.
“The task force goes after bigger cases that can take several months to put together. We have to look at the probable success of a jury trial,” said Sundquist. “We’re going to call an officer who illegally searched a back pack and say we’re going to cut that guy loose. A lot of things have to be looked at before someone is charged. Sometimes reporting something to law enforcement isn’t enough. In a felony jury trial in Minnesota you have to convince 12 people there’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
She added that drugs and violent crime go hand in hand and people are very reluctant to come forward and testify.
A question was asked about seeing someone leaving in a vehicle who looked like they were making a drug deal.
“With that information I would love to get license plates or whatever else. We have a better chance to make a case with an impaired driving arrest which then allows searches. You call and tell me a vehicle like that is leaving and we don’t need cup of coffee to wake us up we’re going to be chomping at the bit to see that car leave,” said Burger.
He added the EPD has had three drug busts in the past year and two have involved social services because children were involved.
Kazel added it takes multiple facts to be able to go after a drug dealer.
“You need a lot to have a judge say I’m going to take their rights away and allow you to search. It’s a hard dance. We get frustrated just like you do.”
The forum was organized by St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services department.