The number of opioid-involved deaths in Hennepin County has been rising since 2000, and teens and young adults ages 15-24 are most likely to be affected, data from the Minnesota Department of Health show. Opioid-related deaths in the county made up 22 percent of all deaths among this age group in 2016; that figure was a mere 2 percent in 2000 and 13 percent in 2010.
A large part of the problem, said Orono Police Chief Correy Farniok, is accessibility and especially accessibility to perfectly legal – when prescribed – pain relievers.
That stance found widespread support at the Capitol, too, when Minnesota state lawmakers passed a bill in May that hikes up licensing fees for manufacturers of prescription pain relievers operating in the state. The additional money will make its way to treatment centers and law enforcement. Also included is more training for medical practitioners around prescribing drugs to their patients.
Opioids include fentanyl, which was responsible for Prince’s death, oxycodone and morphine.
Farniok, along with Deputy Chief Chris Fischer, spoke to a dozen people Aug. 14 at the Gillespie Center in Mound about the opioid problem nationally and in the state and emphasized how something as simple as proper drug disposal can be an integral defense against opioid overdoses and drug-related crime for the way it reduces access to the drugs.
Data from Hennepin County show that one in four people who are prescribed opioids long term for non-cancer pain struggle with addiction. The data also show that more than 1,000 people in the county are treated in emergency rooms each day for misusing prescription drugs. Many reported obtaining those drugs from friends or family members.
Doctors and pharmacies generally do not take back the drugs prescribed, said Farniok, and flushing unused drugs can easily contaminate the water supply.
Which is why drug take-back programs, like the one Orono PD participated in earlier this year, are so important, Farniok said. People can also pick up drug disposal bags from the station and from Mound City Hall.
It’s all part of the effort to reduce the number of drugs on the street. Between 2012 and 2017, the West Metro Drug Task Force collected more than 107,000 pounds of drugs.
West Metro counts among its members officers and deputies from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office; the West Hennepin Public Safety Department; and Orono, Minnetrista and Medina police departments.
Last year, the task force took $2.6 million worth of drugs off the street, including 96 pounds of high-grade marijuana and 70 pounds of meth.
The constantly changing makeup of the drugs out there has been part of the challenge for police, said Farniok.
“They’re very creative,” Farniok said. “What they’re doing is circumventing the laws because, as they create different things – our laws are very specific as to the substance, the molecules’ structure of the drug – they’re changing that to try to bypass some of the laws.”
Accessibility and the mixing of prescription drugs with drugs like heroin has made drug overdoses more common.
Data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the research arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show that heroin, and particularly heroin mixed with fentanyl, was responsible for much of the surge in opioid overdoses since the early 2000’s and especially after 2012.
“They’re taking these synthetic drugs and mixing them with the heroin, and people are thinking that they’re taking a low dose heroin and it’s mixed with fentanyl or carfentanil, which is much stronger, and they’re overdosing,” Farniok said.
Farniok emphasized that Orono and the surrounding areas do not have an outsize proportion of drug-related crimes compared to other areas in the state, but he did say the Twin Cities are fast becoming a “hub” for drug dissemination in the Midwest.
“This is a distribution point. We’re seeing a lot of this coming in. It’s affecting our communities and it’s affecting our surrounding cities,” said Farniok, who also said that 35- and 40-pound busts are “becoming the norm” and that they hardly put a dent in the total supply.
The influx of south-of-the-border drugs has contributed significantly to the Minnesota market, said both Farniok and Fischer, who outlined how meth has followed the basics of supply and demand. A single ounce of methamphetamine during the so-called “meth peak” in 2003 was worth as much as $2,700, said Fischer. The going rate today is about $4,000 per pound, or $250 ounce, less than one-tenth of its former price.