By Jerry Burnes
Mesabi Daily News
CHERRY TOWNSHIP — Moving to Minnesota’s Iron Range, Matt came from a loving home, the star athlete with aspirations of making his life into something successful.
He never wanted to be 27 years old, standing in the gym of Cherry Schools in the throws of a cold, snowy November night, facing the possibility of 84 months in prison while telling the downward spiral that led him to this point.
But here he was describing his heroin addiction and how he overdosed four times, putting himself on the self-described brink of death. He opened up about stealing to feed his habit and his incarceration.
The story from Matt — whose last name is being withheld as part of the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, the organization that presented in Cherry Township this week — is not an uncommon one in the narrative of drug use and abuse now ravaging local communities. Drugs have stretched first responders and governments, killed scores of people throughout the state and forced a national conversation on an epidemic that started in the laboratories of big pharmaceutical companies.
Experience, strength and hope
Matt was 15 years old when he first smoked marijuana — he got high and liked it — after the then-high school sophomore noticed that kids in his new Southern California school doing drugs and smoking cigarettes seemed popular.
Growing up, he described his parents as loving, very involved in his life. He was a star baseball player that didn’t lack self-confidence or friends until his maturing body began to make him more self-conscious. Then a move by the family necessitated a new school, which meant losing the circle of friends he was surrounded himself with for so long.
Matt called his parents “functioning addicts” who drank alcohol and smoked marijuana every night, making the drug easily accessible in the household. He began smoking marijana before school and progressed up the ladder of hard drugs when he discovered alcohol, cocaine and ecstasy at parties.
By age 18, he was using meth. By 24 he was incarcerated for a total of 62 months on drug-related crimes. When Matt was 20, his family moved to Minnesota after the housing market took a toll on their pocketbook. It was here that he first tried the prescription opioid drug called oxycodone.
“That gave me a feeling I have never had before,” Matt said. “It was like, that’s what I was looking for my entire life.”
Eventually, Matt’s addiction and his faulty decision making led himself to his current legal predicament. But he has found some hope in attending recovery meetings to get clean.
“I was sick and tired of being sick and tired,” he said.
The heroin issue
The switch from opioids to heroin, which have a similar chemical makeup, is the natural path addicts have taken from prescription drugs to cheaper, more accessible heroin as evidenced by what law enforcement is seeing on the streets.
Deputy Warren Johnson of the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office is a member of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force. He told the audience in Cherry that investigators have seen a sharp rise in heroin in the Twin Ports and on Iron Range since 2012, the year the prescription opioid shipments began to curtail.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration database that tracks the path of every single pain pill sold across the nation, drug companies shipped 8.4 billion pills in 2006 and 12.6 billion in 2012, helping fuel opioid use to an epidemic level.
Rampant opioid abuse took a foothold in rural areas of Appalachia’s coal mines and along the stretch of Iron Range’s mining communities, where hard labor created a market for stronger painkillers that proved more addictive than drug companies advertised or admitted to — all the while incentivizing doctors and salespeople to prescribe more of the drug.
While lawsuits, targeting gigantic opioid makers like Perdue Pharma and major pharmacies such as Walgreens for their role in the epidemic, aim for financial settlements to go back to local governments, the heroin fallout is still being fought on the front lines of mainly rural communities.
“The heroin issue here is getting out of hand,” Johnson said, noting the problem has penetrated cities throughout the state. “Overdoses are nearly daily, if not multiple times a day.”
Between 2000-2015, drug overdose deaths in Minnesota jumped 343.3 percent. From 2011-2015, heroin- and opioid-related overdose deaths rose 108 percent in St. Louis County alone.
In 2015, the county accounted for 10.5 percent of the state’s heroin overdose deaths and 85.7 percent of deaths in eighth northeastern Minnesota counties.
When combining heroin and opioid deaths, St. Louis County had the third highest death total in the state as of 2015 (8.2 percent), trailing Ramsey County (9.7 percent) and Hennepin County (30.9 percent) which are home to St. Paul and Minneapolis, respectively.
“It’s an epidemic of up here,” Johnson said. “If people realized the damage its doing right here in Cherry Township, in Hibbing … second to the metro, St. Louis County is the worst. I expect deaths this year will be higher than last year.”
Crime, impacts on the rise
As the number of deaths from drug overdoses continue to climb, so do factors that local communities and law enforcement face daily.
Among the biggest, Johnson said, is rising crime rates in heroin and opioid-afflicted areas that include a surge in burglaries and robberies, car prowls, check forgery and identity theft.
Crime is a common way for the addict to feed their habit — stealing items to sell for more drug money — in a cycle often associated with dope sickness. Being dopesick is when an addict is fiending so badly for the drug that they are physically ill — sweating, vomiting, and at its peak, feeling as if they could die — doing anything to regain that drug high including stealing, prostitution and becoming drug runners themselves.
“The drug trade fuels pretty much all the other crime we have in the area,” Johnson said. “Not all, but the vast majority. It’s all connected to drug abuse.”
Costs of an opioid epidemic
Drugs are also the accelerant for social and public health issues that have left governments like St. Louis County strapped for cash and solutions, burdening taxpayers to try and accomplish the latter.
Problems with opioid and heroin are connected with the rising number of out-of-home child placements in the county as more kids entered the foster care system — peaking at about 800 — because of parents addicted to drugs.
Those children are taken care of primarily at the cost of the county, which in recent years has been forced to hire more social workers and initial intervention workers to address the rise in placements.
Other factors considered are burdens on the court system, outpatient and inpatient treatment and emergency responses and care for overdoses.
Nationally, the opioid epidemic has caused about $55 billion in health social costs each year, according to Johnson, and another $20 billion in emergency department inpatient care for opioid poisonings.
It has also led to changes in the way first responders and law enforcement officers are trained. Johnson said the county now requires deputies to carry an overdose-reversing drug called Narcan, or Naloxone, on them at all times.
In the event of an overdose, Narcan is administered as a nose spray, with one treatment often reversing the overdose’s effects. In more serious cases, Johnson said, it could take three or four doses.
With an increase in fentanyl, a street drug 100 times more potent than heroin, Narcan is now viewed as a potential life-saving drug for officers and deputies that come in contact with it accidentally.
“If you don’t have a tolerance to [fentanyl], just a small amount can kill you,” he said.