The Fargo Police Department responded to over 10 opioid-causing deaths and more than 60 overdoses due to the same type of drugs in the past year, the first lady of North Dakota Kathryn Burgum told an audience Friday.
Burgum was speaking to the crowd of Chasing the Dragon, an opium-based drug awareness seminar put on by the North Dakota State Criminal Justice Club.
A 15-year-removed former alcohol addict herself, Burgum was a featured speaker at the event who presented background information and initiatives pertaining to raising awareness about addiction. The event also featured a documentary-style film created by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Chasing the Dragon, and a discussion panel afterward.
Burgum said the problem of opioid addiction hit close to home for her. Her niece was a high school hockey goalie who hurt her knee and started using pain medications to help herself. She then became addicted.
“Addiction can no longer be described as a character flaw or a moral defect,” Burgum said, adding if our society changes its stigma toward addiction by treating it more like a disease and less like a criminal then people wouldn’t choose to ruin lives or drink themselves to death anymore.
She added there needs to be more treatment options other than jail or prison and more options for those in jail or prison.
Burgum said 78 people die every day in the United States due to an overdose from prescription or opioid drugs and 80 percent of people at the national level with an opioid addiction are not getting treatment.
Finally, Burgum announced an opioid treatment program will open in Fargo later this month and there will be three total in the state of North Dakota.
Kathy Hotakainen, a community outreach specialist for the Federal Bureau of Investigation based out of Minneapolis, presented the film and the epidemic of opioid drugs.
“This is an epidemic that law enforcement cannot arrest our way out of,” Hotakainen said. “Anybody can become an addict. It can be as simple as getting a sports injury, being prescribed painkillers and it going from there.”
She said the FBI is getting involved in this epidemic because numerous amounts of the large crimes the FBI are fighting are in some way involved with opium addictions.
The panel consisted of U.S. Attorney of North Dakota Chris Myers, Executive Director of the North Dakota Board of Pharmacy Mark Hardy, NDSU Police and Safety Officer and member of the NDSU President’s Council on Alcohol and Other Drugs Lt. Adam Walter, Matt Christensen, the officer in charge of the Fargo Police Department Narcotics Unit, Marvis Doster, a registered addiction nurse and Jeff Harper, a Drug Enforcement Agency resident who oversees operations in the state of North Dakota.
Harper talked about the dangers of the opioid drug epidemic in the Fargo-Moorhead, specifically with the increasing prevalence of lethal drugs fentanyl and carfentanil.
“You should be scared. You should all be very, very scared,” Harper said.
Harper described a lethal dose of fentanyl and carfentanil as the size of grains of salt. He added carfentanil is a tranquilizer used to take down elephants and that these two drugs are different from the rest because users can get hooked very fast, very quick and can be killed in one dose.
Hardy said a rollout of naloxone, also known by its brand name of Narcan which is used to reverse the effects of a narcotic overdose, is intended to save as many lives as possible. He said Narcan can reverse the effects of a carfentanil overdose, though the drug is so potent that Narcan may not be able to save a person in time.
Doster said the problems existing are a lack of access to treatments and, though opioids have an appropriate use in some instances, they were designed to treat end-of-life kinds of pain and not headaches or menstrual cramps.
Hardy said currently, doctors do overprescribe opioids, but working with the DEA to allow North Dakota pharmacies to take back prescription drugs will help cut down on addiction.
“More is not better and stronger is not better,” Doster said.
Harper said he has seen an increase in opioid related overdoses and deaths in the previous two or three years. He added that though marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, he still concentrates his people on methamphetamine and other hard drugs.
“Our end goal isn’t to put users in jail again and again,” Christensen said.
Christensen said his job is to work with people to climb up a source of supply and hold the people at the top accountable. He added he investigates all drugs but opioids took up a lot of his time and effort last year, with 15 federal indictments specifically related to opioids.
A common theme between Chasing the Dragon and remarks at the panel were how jail or prison time for some opioid users actually helped them get clean and saved their lives.
Walter, Myers, Burgum, Hotakainen and Harper all expressed the importance of education to prevent the spread of opioid addiction.
Myers said curbing the opioid epidemic starts with changing how our culture views marijuana and other drugs.
“Knowledge is key folks,” Harper said.
Walter said though much of law enforcement is reactionary in nature, he and his officers have had to be proactive with the opioid epidemic. Currently, the UPSO assigns an officer to each residence hall to educate students on the problems of alcohol and drugs. The UPSO also serves on the PCAOD, of which has a mission to ensure the success of students.
“Anyone in this room has the ability and opportunity to make a difference,” Myers said. He added talking to young people and informing them of the harm is a good way to prevent them from starting to use opioids.
The Cass County Sheriff’s Office, the Fargo Police Department and the West Fargo Police Department all have prescription drug take-back programs where individuals can drop off excess prescription drugs they may have.
Community Medical Services, located at 901 28th Street, Fargo, North Dakota, is an opioid treatment program. The program’s phone number is 701-858-1801.
Anyone with information they wish to report regarding opioid drugs can contact the UPSO at 701-231-8998 or by texting a tip to 701-526-6006. The same can be done for the FPD by calling 701-241-5777 or texting a tip to 701-730-8888.
A complete set of resources for North Dakota can be found at https://prevention.nd.gov/stopoverdose and for Minnesota at http://www.mnprc.org/resources/prevention-resources/topics/opioids/.
Editor’s Note: Resources listed are for non-emergency services. If you or anyone you know is experiencing an emergency related to opioid drugs, please do not hesitate to call 9-1-1. North Dakota is a Good Samaritan state, such that up to three people including the person needing help will not be in legal trouble for ingestion or possession of illegal drugs if medical help is sought out.