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'Somebody is everybody': Grand Forks issuing call to action to fight opioids

Lt. Brett Johnson of the Grand Forks Police Department discusses a rise in opioid-related overdoses on Monday at the Grand Forks Police Department. Grand Forks city leaders plan to host a 7 p.m. meeting Thursday, May 25, to talk about ways to combat the opioid crisis and invite community members to become part of the solution. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)1 / 2
Lt Brett Johnson shows examples of opioids that have been found in Grand Forks, along with drug combatants that EMS has on hand when dealing with dangerous drugs.(Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 2

Opioid abuse has been on the rise in Grand Forks for more than a year, and police can readily share stories and statistics that tell the tale—with more and more people every year overdosing. Police Lt. Brett Johnson thumbs through photos while he shares a few numbers, one of which shows the needles and spoons he said are often found at the scene of an overdose.

"What I can tell you is that in the 20 years I've been at the police department here, we've never seen the amount of heroin and fentanyl we've seen in the last year or so," he said.

And after growing worries about the opioid crisis—both here and nationwide—Grand Forks leaders are inviting the public to be part of a solution.

City leaders will host a 7 p.m. meeting on Thursday, May 25, for the community to come to the Alerus Center and be part of the solution. Pete Haga, the city's community and government relations officer, said it's a chance for the public to collaborate and push back against the opioid crisis. After a roughly 30-minute presentation on the problem, Haga said attendees will break out into smaller groups for 90 minutes to talk about solutions—from treatment to education to intervention.

Johnson said it's an increasingly pressing problem. His department has responded to 13 overdoses so far in 2017, two of which have been fatal—by this time last year, the department had responded to five, only one of which was fatal. Though police could compile similar data on 2015, Johnson, said, it wasn't immediately available, because the sudden jump in overdoses has been such a recent occurrence.

And that, Johnson stressed, are just the overdoses and deaths the police know about.

"I would say that we've always had a drug presence in town here. I think what has differed over the years is the type of drug that's prevalent at any given time," he said. "Probably what's frightening right now is that the drugs that are prevalent are the opioids—mainly heroin and fentanyl."

It's hard to get further into specifics on solutions before the meeting itself, Haga said, which will help launch groups of community members to craft solutions to the crisis. The gathering is an early step towards drawing up a working plan for how to combat the problem, which will also help leverage funds—state, federal or otherwise—to build solutions.

"This isn't somebody else's problem. This is everyone's," Haga said. "When somebody says 'somebody ought to do something'—the intent here is that 'somebody' is everybody."

The city's push comes on the heels of growing concern at City Hall over the issue. Mayor Mike Brown used his State of the City speech to bring attention to the issue, announcing his intentions to develop a plan to grapple with the problem. The City Council voted 7-0 in January to add it to a list of top priorities that also includes infrastructure and housing availability.

City officials have said there are officials from other groups who have already been part of talks on the "call to action" on opioids, as the coming process is called—from UND to law enforcement to schools—but Brown stressed that everyone should feel as though the door is open to play a part.

"We're opening it to everybody because other people may have ideas," Brown said. "We want everyone to be part of it. Don't feel left out. Bring your solutions to the table, because you may have an answer."

City Council member Sandi Marshall stressed that this initiative isn't a "brand-new" effort, but rather builds on what others in Grand Forks have already accomplished.

"This is an issue that many groups in the community have been working on for several years," she said. Now, it's time to "ratchet it up to a more coordinated level."

The city has also been using a survey to gather community feedback, available at the city's website, GrandForksGov.com. It asks respondents a few basic details about who they are, how effectively the community is responding to substance abuse and their thoughts on what can be done in the future.

Johnson said heroin likely makes its way into the area from Mexico, and many opioids come over the internet from places like China. But once they arrive, the drugs' victims know few common characteristics, with overdoses cutting across age and gender lines, he said.

"Absolutely don't do it," Johnson said. "With the dangers of these substances and that fine line I mentioned between getting a high and getting a fatal overdose, that line is so thin that it's not worth messing with."

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

(701) 780-1108
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