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Drug war at home: Arrests on the rise, but experts say opioid crisis is everyone's battle

On March 22, paramedics and police were called to a home in the 400 block of Eighth Avenue South in Grand Forks. A man had overdosed. He was unresponsive and not breathing.

iStock/Evkaz
iStock/Evkaz

On March 22, paramedics and police were called to a home in the 400 block of Eighth Avenue South in Grand Forks. A man had overdosed. He was unresponsive and not breathing.

Paramedics were able to revive the man, who said he snorted a blue powder that may have contained fentanyl, an opioid that can be 100 times more powerful than morphine.

Two days later, a criminal complaint stated the man told officers the blue pill he had crushed and snorted had "A 215" stamped on it. He said he thought the pill was the prescription opiate oxycodone, but he also told officers he had heard fake oxycodone pills containing fentanyl were being sold in the area.

A traffic stop in East Grand Forks on Tuesday turned into a lead in the "fake oxycodone" case, and now six young adults, ages 19 to 22, are facing felony charges. Police confiscated 500 of the blue "A 215" pills, and one was sent to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension where it was tested and shown to indicate the presence of fentanyl.

Drug landscape

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Drug cases in the Red River Valley have changed in the past five years, with heroin, fentanyl and prescription opioids becoming increasingly popular. A recent crime report showed drug busts are on the rise in Grand Forks - serious drug offenses up 40 percent and drug possession charges up 62 percent in 2016 - but police say they know the problem cannot be arrested away.

"We understand that cannot be fully addressed through enforcement," Grand Forks Police Lt. Derik Zimmel said Thursday. "It's a community issue."

Zimmel said police will continue to quickly alert the community when they see batches of the dangerous drugs circulating, and they work with schools and others to educate the public about the potentially deadly narcotics.

"Certainly law enforcement plays a role in that, but only a role," Zimmel said. "It really needs to be a multidisciplinary approach."

Art Culver, manager of Altru Health System's ambulance services, agrees. He said he has addressed the opioid danger at area forums and has shared his concerns with news organizations.

"I don't know if it's stemmed anything," Culver said.

Altru ambulance teams have administered Narcan, a medicine that counters the effects of opioids and reverses an overdose, 11 times already in 2017. Culver said that puts them on pace for 2016's total of 43.

"We're going on a good three years of increase with it," Culver said.

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Altru paramedics administered Narcan 28 times in 2013, 36 times in 2014 and 42 times in 2015.

Fentanyl, Culver said, is particularly dangerous. Both first-time users and veteran junkies easily can overdose on the potent drug.

"There's no do-overs anymore," Culver said.

Emergency room

Dr. Christopher Boe has seen the worst effects of opioids in Altru's emergency room, where he has witnessed multiple overdose deaths in recent years. When he started 15 years ago in Grand Forks, Boe said he saw almost no heroin cases.

"It's been quite a dramatic change in this town," Boe said.

Today, he said overdose cases can be an almost daily occurrence in the emergency room.

"It went from being almost never to routine," he said.

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The recent batch of pills containing fentanyl was particularly shocking, he said. Boe said both fentanyl and oxycodone affect the same receptors as morphine, but oxycodone is typically 1.5 times more powerful than oral morphine, and fentanyl is 80 times more powerful.

"That's a significant difference," Boe said.

The trend has been disturbing to witness, Boe said. Despite the warnings throughout the community, he says he worries the message is not getting through.

Zimmel said individuals must take a more active role if they want the situation to improve. Programs such as prescription drug return stations, which are set up at all local law enforcement agencies and at Altru Health Systems, give people an opportunity to return prescription drugs and controlled substances unanimously. On Altru's annual Medication Take Back Day on March 21, 275 pounds of prescription drugs were collected in Grand Forks.

Experts say such efforts can go a long way toward helping to decrease the amount of prescription pills in the community, which is where experts say many addicts get their start before turning to drugs such as heroin and fentanyl.

"We need to be vigilant," Zimmel said.

Lt. Derik Zimmel
Lt. Derik Zimmel

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