A new front in the war on drugs

Published 4:01 pm Sunday, November 13, 2016

For years, the approach to stemming the drug problem in America has been arrests of dealers and users alike.

But as beds in jails and prisons began to fill, law enforcement and treatment facilities began to see that in dealing with the crisis, policing had to evolve.

Agencies continued to track and pursue dealers and suppliers of opioids, but when it came to the users, the road deviated into treatment.

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“It’s not just to stick them in jail, not to put them in prison,” said Tim, an Austin Police Department detective, who also works with the Southeast Minnesota Violent Crime Enforcement Team. His name is being withheld to protect his identity. “With the new laws that we have with drugs, our department, our probation both with the Department of Corrections and Mower County, to the attorneys, to the judges and down to me — we all recognize that we want these people to get clean.”

Getting the users clean is a simple plan with a complicated approach. Opioids — heroin and methamphetamines — are a different beast from alcohol addiction because of the way they affect the brain, according to Jack Wittkopp, clinical supervisor for Fountain Centers, a drug and alcohol dependence resource here in southeast Minnesota.

“The problem is, where people are able to get through a little bit quicker with alcohol versus, say meth, is that there is more of a re-uptake in their dopamine,” Wittkopp said. “The potential for relapse is there with your oxycontin and opioids. The high risk for relapse is there for a longer period of time.”

Like so many aspects of drug addiction and the war on drugs, there are multiple fronts, but with a renewed push toward agency cooperation, there are rays of light showing through.

The drugs

Heroin and meth have both been around for a long time, but in recent years both have taken a drastic upturn in use.

Recent heroin cases in Mower County, involved in both drug busts and crime, have signaled this sudden rise. And meth’s use has remained strong after Mexican cartels began supplying it in bulk when law enforcement began cracking down on area production of the drug.

Olmsted County Sheriff’s Department’s Captain Vince Scheckel, commander of the SEMVCET, said the switch in supply changed in the early 2000s.

“When I first came on as an officer, there were a lot of meth labs in the area. Mom and pop labs producing 1, 2 to 3 ounces at a time,” Scheckel said. “You’re not seeing the labs but we’re seeing it in pounds and pounds. The Mexican drug cartels realized the demand in the Minnesota area and began shipping it here by the kilo.”

Heroin began its surge roughly about the same time, when crack downs began on how much and when prescription drugs were being prescribed. It provided an alternative for people who had been using the medications to combat pain.

It was an example of trying to plug two holes in a dam at the same time.

“Once they started regulating more, keeping an eye on opioid prescriptions, it became harder for people to get prescription drugs, which in turn made heroin accessible,” Tim explained. “A lot of people I’ve talked to that are heroin users, most of them will tell you they started by taking prescription meds.”

The sudden jump in use of both drugs was highlighted dramatically in 2015 when SEMVCET released its year-end report in conjunction with the Austin Police Department’s report.

In 2014 SEMVCET seized 1,600 grams of meth and 5.9 grams of heroin. In 2015 the meth numbers ballooned to 21,037 grams of meth and 11.06 grams of heroin. Tim said that as of October of this year, heroin seizures had already nearly topped 100 grams.

The re-emergence of poppy harvesting in Afghanistan could also have an impact on opiod production. According to a report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, released in October, Afghan poppy production rose by 43 percent to 4,800 metric tons in 2016 according to numbers released from the Afghanistan Opium Survey released by the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics. Poppies are a main ingredient of heroin.

The area under opium poppy cultivation, according to the report, increased to 201,00 hectares or roughly 776 square miles. That’s up 10 percent from 2015 where it was 183,000 hectares or 706 square miles.

More opium poppies, more heroin.

Stemming the supply of the drugs to Minnesota is further complicated by its easy access along Interstates 90 and 35. Southern Minnesota is particularly vulnerable since that is where the interstates cross.

According to both Tim and Scheckel, the stream of heroin is coming primarily from Chicago into places like Rochester and Winona where it spreads easily from there.

“Chicago is a main hub for any type of drug,” Tim said. “A lot of times the drugs will go into a larger city and then get distributed from there. If it’s Chicago, New York, Miami or Seattle, you go into those big hubs and from there it goes out into the smaller communities.”

A side affect of the increased drugs is the increased crime. Users are continually looking to get their next fix and, as use climbs, money becomes an issue. The next step is the increased crime whether stealing from businesses or even family.

“I think what people don’t realize is that due to drug use, drug use leads to burglaries, robberies, assaults and other crimes,” Tim said. “They’re both connected. A lot of times they’re not stealing $150 from a clerk because they want $150. They’re stealing $150 because they want heroin.”

This spreads the impact throughout the community, straining those businesses, friends and family.

“Now you turn it into victims out there who have been impacted due to users needing their drug,” Tim said.

Law enforcement

John, whose real name is also being withheld to protect his identity, used heroin on and off again for five years, before coming clean and trying to straighten out his life.

His problem with heroin swept him into the familiar cycle of drug abuse, fraying not just him but those he was closest to.

“I had been in jail and I had a little bit of time in jail when I was clean,” he said. “It was just back and forth. My life was falling apart.”

Several factors came into play for John to get clean, above all, he did not want people knowing about his addiction.

“Fear of getting caught, not just by law enforcement, but friends and family,” John said. “The fear of people finding out.”

It was also a lifestyle that slowly and steadily tore his life apart.

“I was always making sure to get through,” John said. “You don’t sleep, you pass out. I knew I had reached the end.”

John is a victory in the making and you can hear it in his voice when he talks.

“I’m in the process of turning my life around,” he said. “I’ve never felt this good. I”m talking with friends and family again. I feel real good.”

It’s what members of law enforcement, including Tim, want to see.

“It makes me want to work harder,” Tim said. “I think it motivates all of us to want to work harder.”

Treating, rather than arresting, has directly affected the drug culture in any given town. Not only is this brand of law enforcement helping the user, it’s helping the community.

Each person that gets clean forges a link in a chain of events that eventually can reduce drugs in Austin and other communities like it.

“With the users, our goal is to get them clean,” Tim said. “If we can get them to stop using heroin that cuts off the demand, which also then can cut off the supply. If we could stop the users from using heroin it’s going to stop people from bringing it here.”

It seems to be working. According to John, the heroin use in Austin has been cut significantly.

“It’s scattered, but it’s such rare thing,” he said. “You really have to hunt it down. For a casual user it’s not worth it anymore.”

Tim is seeing the same thing.

“Right now, in Austin, I think a lot of people are getting clean,” he said. “People are still using, but I would say the trend right now is people are realizing that this is real.”

While Tim and other law enforcement agencies actively hope people will turn to them for help, there is an obstacle that can hinder some users from coming forward. It can put the police on a thin line of actively investigating crimes related to drugs.

But that decision is often made by the need to help an addict get and stay clean.

“We do want to investigate the sales of narcotics,” Tim admitted. “But we realize that the more important thing at that moment, when someone comes in for help, is not to sit there and ask them questions about their drug use and or association with distribution. It’s just to get them help. That’s why we’re here.”

More often than not, it’s simply providing the user an outlet. Someone to talk to when perhaps before there wasn’t.

Tim remembers an addict who was getting into trouble through his heroin use and committing crimes.

During this person’s time in jail, Tim went over and simply talked to him.

“I’m not a counselor by any means, but it gives them someone,” he said. “You almost have to build a relationship with this community of people using drugs and let them know who you are and letting them know there is someone you can come talk to who is a police officer but not your typical cop.”


Tim has very simple advice for people hoping to get off drugs like heroin and meth.

“I would urge people, if they remotely think they can stop or have thoughts of not stopping and want to get off the heroin, there are people that can help them,” he said. “We will help you come into the Law Enforcement Center. Ask for advice of where to go, we will point them in the direction to go.”

That first step, however, is only one in a long journey that will never be easy.

One of which is finding the support network users need. So many go to treatment programs for about a month and then are free again without the needed support that will keep them clean. They fall back into their old ways not because they don’t have any support, but because they don’t have the right kind of support.

“If you have them fill out paperwork and have them do this, this and this and go through the process of it, then you send them home to wait, you’ve lost them, because they’re just going to go back to using. They have no support,” Tim said, and then clarified by saying, “When I say no support — they do have family and friends — they have support, but it’s not the right support.”

Fountain Centers faces that struggle head on, but hits it with the positivity the addict needs. They also understand the realism of battling this person’s addiction and the road they have to travel individually.

“We really have to stabilize their living situation, much more than they have before,” Wittkopp said. “You really have to find a way of promoting weekly meetings, sponsor contacts, re-establishment education for families, re-establish them with new friends. The potential of relapse is great. We have to be mindful of what their potential trigger management is about.”

Part of the continuing struggle of treatment is keeping everybody on the same page and that often starts with places like a doctor’s visit. In no way does Wittkopp blame doctors for substance abuse and addiction; it’s simply that not all the necessary information is available to them.

“That is what the problem is,” Wittkopp explained. “We sometimes have physicians, some but not all, that might treat people that have addictive problems without really knowing a lot of this information.”

“We find that it’s really important to maintain therapeutic relationships with patients and doctors that have medical connection so we’re all talking in one language,” he added.

Despite the high number of drug cases through the area, state and nation, Wittkopp doesn’t buy all the way into the fact that treatment facilities are burned by the epidemic.

It’s simply a matter of how opioid abuse is treated. It’s an extended process that takes time and patience.

“I don’t think we’re overburdened,” he said. “There are people that need more time. Everybody is unique in their own addiction their own means of support.”

And that wraps back to the idea of approaching this issue with a team-like approach. Getting everybody on board, from police to the courts and probation to the people working in places like Fountain Centers.

“When everybody is working together, you’ll find the answers,” Wittkopp said. “Team together as a community and we’ll take care of our people. One way or another, we’ll find answers.”

For former addicts like John, though, it can come down to one word: Hope.

“Just keep hoping,” John said. “Know it’s not a dead end. There’s just a stigma of feeling worthless, but you’re worth it. You’re worth being happy.”

Getting help

There are several ways somebody with addiction can get help.

One is to simply come down to the Law Enforcement Center and ask.

“They need help and they need to stop doing what they are doing,” Tim said. “If we can help them do that then we don’t have to arrest them. We want our community free of drugs.”

People can also call Fountain Centers at 1-507-434-1890 to get help.

“That goes directly into the center in Austin,” said clinic supervisor Jack Wittkopp. “Let’s talk about it. We can begin to start making decisions on where you need to be. Call us and you will find out where you’re at and what you need.