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Opioid impact minimal locally

FAIRMONT — Opioids are big news lately, especially with President Trump’s comments backing the execution of opioid traffickers.

One cannot help but wonder just how much opioid use affects their hometown. Fortunately for Martin County, the answer is “not much.”

Fairmont Police Detective Eric Tonder explains that usage really is minimal, especially when compared with other illegal drugs.

“There’s not too much opioid use here,” he said. “Opioids just aren’t on our radar; it would be 100 to 1 compared to meth. We do have some pill sales but if I pulled up stats we’re talking single digits for our area proper.”

Lt. Jeff Wersal, the Minnesota River Valley Drug Task Force commander, confirms that statement.

“The Minnesota River Valley Drug Task Force covers Martin County and the city of Fairmont,” he said. “Although there are opioids in this area, the problem is nothing like some regions in the state. A majority of the opioids the task force encounters are in the form of prescription pills.

“Although there are heroin users in this region, including Fairmont, the people addicted to methamphetamine far outnumber heroin addicts. As a task force, we continually try to identify those who traffic opioids in our area and are routinely told that if we want to buy more than a small amount of heroin that we would have to travel to the Twin Cities area. Our last few years of opioid-related arrests are very low when compared to meth, marijuana, cocaine and other illegal drugs.”

Rich Odom, chemical dependency assessor for Human Services of Faribault & Martin Counties, again confirms that opioid use is low, but also gives some insight into the strange, controlling, nature of addiction when it comes to mind-altering substances.

“No, we’re not seeing as much opioids down here,” he said. “Down here meth, marijuana and alcohol are still the big three. Opioids are here, in the form of oxycodone, hydrocodone, Vicodin, but we’re not seeing a lot of heroin or fentanyl.”

Concerning meth use, Odom said it is a big problem.

“The problem we used to have several years ago was that we had a bunch of meth labs in the area,” he noted. “But then, law enforcement, treatment and legislation put a lid on that for a while until the cartels stepped in. So what used to be weed and cocaine, they stepped right into that vacuum for meth, so now we’ve got the Mexican cartels with all that comes with that.”

Odom said part of the problem with opioids, meth or any controlled substance is the complexities behind addiction.

“Right now, addiction is defined as a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug-seeking and drug-using despite negative consequences,” he said. “Current neuroscience is really supporting the fact that the brain is changed by use, not just changing the way you think, but the way you experience things. It actually changes the physical structures in the brain.

“Some people do have a genetic predisposition to having problems with it; it does run in families. There have been all kinds of studies that have shown that, and added to that is the environment. It doesn’t mean you’re going to become an addict or have problems with substances, but your risk level just went up.”

Odom also noted goes into what drives addiction, stating that extended use over time creates a situation in which it is extremely difficult to break away from the high level of “good feeling” one receives from a person’s drug of choice.

“What happens is over the course of time, whether its two months, two years, or 20 years, people become able to feel good only by using their drug of choice,” he said. “With meth it really takes over the brain in the case of dopamine. People are using at that point just to get relief from the pain in their lives.

“So if you go have the best most perfect day ever, two lines of meth will give you more of that dopamine in about 14 seconds than your perfect day, not just a little more but a lot more. So as you get to doing that, your brain adjusts. If you do that for a while, your body gets used to massive doses of dopamine.

“Now if you go to quit using, your brain is used to extremely high levels in 14 seconds, and your perfect day is delivering only normal levels. Your threshold is so high that your brain doesn’t even recognize it, and you’re basically burning out your pleasure circuits. It affects the way they perceive themselves and the world before anything gets to the prefrontal cortex where your decision-making, logic and rational are.”

“It’s a chronic disease,” he continued. “Interestingly, it has similar relapse rates as cancer, diabetes and other chronic diseases, except addiction is just ugly. Socially, there’s still a lot of stigma with it.”

When asked how he feels about criminalization affects addicts, Odom said his answer is more of a “both, and” rather than an “either, or.”

“The best thing I’ve seen come along in years is Drug Court, which recognizes that we have a lot of people in the criminal justice system because they’re addicts and because of the things addicts do to support their use,” he said. “So these folks were in an out, stuck in a loop and they can’t get out.

“With Drug Court, someone gets charged and goes through about an 18-month or two-year process where they go to treatment and community support meetings. If they can get through that process, then their charges might be dropped or lowered and they can walk away from that with maybe a couple of years sobriety, a job, maybe their family’s back together, and they’ve had a lot of structure for a couple of years. That’s been really helpful.”

However, Odom believes there is role in which prison serves to punish the truly criminal, such as professional dealers, as well as help an addict acknowledge the seriousness of their problem.

“There are people who are drug dealers, business people who manufacture and sell drugs, those people need to go away, they need to go to prison,” he said. “For addicts, sometimes you get tagged with a felony charge and that gets your attention. You’re going to look around at your life, and treatment helps people make some drastic changes.”

Odom said the fight is ongoing because the hold that all mind-altering substances, including alcohol, has over addicts is extremely powerful.

“People will say give me that bag and here’s $100, here’s the keys to my car, here’s the deed to my house, my marriage certificate, and, why not, here’s my life, take it. That happens all the time, and there’s something very powerful going on in the mind, the body and the spirit.

“There’s something very powerful that drugs are doing that have people dying over it. It’s not because they’re idiots, I’ve met very few people who are just stupid. It’s not willpower, because if you ever hang around with addicts, you’ll notice that they’re some of the most stubborn, willful people on the face of the earth.

“But willpower just doesn’t work with drugs. The “Just Say No” thing works for people who are probably never going to develop a problem with it.”

On a positive note, Odom said he is pleased with how far prevention efforts have come in recent years, and mentioned that not all is bad news.

“Addiction is treatable, and people are able to recover,” he said. “The more we can think of addicts as people with a disease, the better able the community is to gather itself around them and do things that are helpful, like Drug Court. Hitting an addict over the head with a bigger hammer thinking they’ll “get it” just doesn’t work and makes things worse.

“Minnesota is really good at taking care of its citizens. Our counties here, Martin and Faribault, are really good at trying to provide services to people who need it most. Many places do not work as hard with their citizens to help them get their needs met.”

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