An unexpected knock rang through Chris Eaton’s door May 29, 2007. Outside her Brooklyn Center residence stood a police officer. Eaton’s 23 year-old daughter, Ariel Eaton-Willson, had overdosed on heroin in a Burger King parking and was dead, the officer said. Eaton’s husband, Tim Willson, had been sworn-in to his first term as Mayor of Brooklyn Center in January of the same year. 

“We were understandably traumatized and shocked because we weren’t aware that she was using opioids. Apparently she was in the Burger King parking lot over on Bass Lake Road, and she had actually texted somebody for a number of hours and they delivered the heroin to her, and she used it in that parking lot,” Eaton said. “It was divided into three doses, and the third of the heroin that she took caused her to overdose and die. The person with her did not go for help, they spent all their energy hiding paraphernalia.”

At the time, state law did not allow police officers to carry Naloxone or Narcane, an opioid overdose antidote.

“By the time the EMS got there, it was like 45 minutes, and it was too late. They did try to revive her at North Memorial … but it didn’t work,” Eaton said.

Eaton said she doesn’t know how her daughter first came in contact with opioids. “It’s been almost 12 years. I should probably put forth the energy and ask the people around her. I’ve had a hard time talking to them … [it’s] a little too traumatic for me,” she said. “I thought that she partied too much, that drank too much. I didn’t know about any other drug use.”

Four years later, Eaton was elected to her to represent Brooklyn Center in the Senate as a Democrat. “I had entered the legislature in 2011 and determined that I needed to do something [about opioids],”

she said.

“I went to an event on the opioid issue and met the executive director of the Steve Rummler Hope Network. Steve Rummler had also overdosed on heroin. He was prescribed opioids for a sports injury and became addicted … when his doctor cut him off, he had a friend who brought him some heroin, and the first time he tried it he overdosed,” Eaton said.

Rummler died in 2011, and the organization bearing his name was founded in the wake of his death.

As Eaton and Lexi Reed Holtum, Rummler’s finance and the executive director of the Steve Rummler Hope Network, discussed the death of their loved ones, they found a number of similarities.

In both cases, when the overdose occurred, there was another person on the scene who took efforts to avoid being arrested on drug charges rather than calling for help or administering first aid, and the first arriving police officers did not have Nalaxone or Narcan to reverse the

overdose.

“That’s pretty much the story I hear from all the parents and all the people I talk to that lost a loved one,” Eaton said.

In 2014, Eaton sponsored “Steve’s Law,” named

after Rummler, which allowed anyone, particularly first responders, to carry Nalaxone to revive someone who has

overdosed.

The law also exempts someone from prosecution for possession or paraphernalia charges if they call for help for someone who is overdosing, unless that individual is carrying a very large amount of drugs. The bill was signed into law in May of that year.

Current legislative action

In the year’s since the approval of “Steve’s Law,” Eaton has continued to push for legislation to help curb the opioid crisis. She’s currently one of the sponsors of a bill that would increase fees for drug companies to help pay for the costs of responding to the opioid epidemic.

The Minnesota Senate advanced the bill, chief authored by Sen. Julie Rosen (R-Vernon Center), on a bipartisan 59-6 vote April 1. The approval followed the House’s 94-34 passage of a similar measure two

weeks prior.

Under both versions, the hike in fees for opioid manufacturers and wholesale distributors would generate $20 million annually to combat the state’s opioid epidemic through prevention, education, treatment and research.

The legislation would also create stronger restrictions on opiate prescriptions and refills, require more stringent reporting by pharmaceutical companies and form a prescription monitoring program to prevent overprescribing and “doctor shopping.”

“Everyone needs to come to the table – doctors, pharmacists, pharmaceuticals and patients – to help us solve this problem,” Rosen said. “This bill a step forward to hold people accountable for the responsible distribution and use of opioids.”

The Senate bill would raise the annual license fee for opioid manufacturers from $235 to $55,000. Drug companies and wholesale distributors would pay $5,000, and the annual registration fee for companies that sell, deliver or distribute 2 million of more units of opioids would pay an additional $250,000.

The fees on anufacturers would be adjusted if Minnesota prevails or settles the ongoing national lawsuit against opioid manufacturers for $20 million or more.

A new advisory council would oversee the special revenue fund and make grant recommendations.

“The thinking is you spread [the money] around, do some good and send a message,” said Sen. Jim Abeler (R-Anoka), another sponsor of the bill. “There’s as much message in this bill as there is content to do good things.”

Abeler said the new law would help hold drug companies accountable for their role in the opioid crisis. The senator said he sees parallels between tobacco companies once pushing the idea that smoking was safe and not addictive with how opioid manufacturers have misled the public about the true risks and dangers associated with opioids.

“The manufacturers misled the doctors, who then told their patients not to worry,” Abeler said.

Opponents of the bill say the increased fees could mean extra costs for patients, but Abeler and other supporters of the legislation argue that action must be taken to reduce the deadly impacts of the opioid crisis.

“We wish there was a way to say … [Drug

companies] need to take this out of their profits, but that’s unfortunately not one of the levers that we have,” Abeler said.

The Senate and House bills are currently in conference committee to work out differences between the two. Gov. Tim Walz said he hopes to get a compromise signed into law soon.

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