What it will take to beat fentanyl in Minnesota

Progress has been made but there’s still a need for a sea change in public awareness of the dangers.

Star Tribune Opinion By Michele Hein and Paul Ostrow | AUGUST 22, 2023

A bag of evidence containing the synthetic opioid fentanyl disguised as Oxycodone is shown during a Fresno County Sheriff’s Office press conference in 2020. CRAIG KOHLRUSS, TNS – TNS

One of us is the heartbroken mother of an energetic and kind young man cruelly taken away by a single fentanyl pill. The other is a career prosecutor who has witnessed the carnage firsthand as families grieve loved ones lost to fentanyl or live in constant fear for their children. We have come together to say that enough is enough. We have come together to challenge all Minnesotans to see their common humanity and to unite behind the common goal of saving our young people and our future.

By now, you have seen the statistics. By some estimates, a little over 1,000 Minnesotans and more than 109,000 Americans are killed by fentanyl or its toxic relatives yearly. These are not just numbers. Ask your neighbors, friends and extended family. Chances are someone you know is impacted by this plague. It is just as likely, however, that the families who have lost loved ones to fentanyl continue to live in deep pain and grief — too often living in the shadows of despair, unwarranted shame and a loss of hope.

Our mission is to create fentanyl-free communities throughout Minnesota. Achieving this mission will require broad partnerships and community collaboration. We will need a public awareness campaign matching the scale of the crisis. Our work and advocacy must build upon what is already being done to fight the opioid crisis.

Finally, it will require a bipartisan approach free from simple narratives and false choices presented by both the left and the right. We need immediate and accessible treatment options. We need greater public awareness. We must give law enforcement the tools to apprehend offenders and save lives. And, yes, we need consequences for merchants of death who recklessly spread this poison in our neighborhoods.

The efforts of Minnesota Democrats and Republicans hearten us. Working together, state legislators enacted previously stalled legislation that brings penalties for fentanyl trafficking in line with penalties for heroin — a critical first step. As chair of the Opioid Epidemic Response Advisory Council, state Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, has shown it is possible to have great compassion for those struggling with addiction while similarly holding traffickers accountable. State Sen. Judy Seeberger, DFL-Afton, and other Democrats in the House and Senate made sure there was widespread bipartisan support. Other legislative action, spearheaded by state Sen. Kelly Morrison, DFL-Deephaven, to require Narcan (the antidote that can reverse an opioid overdose) in all public and charter schools. Fentanyl Free Communities was honored to join a powerful coalition of impacted families and community members in successfully lobbying for these long- overdue changes.

U.S. Reps. Angie Craig of the Second Congressional District and Dean Phillips of the Third have shown leadership in Congress by recognizing the need to prioritize this battle. Six of Minnesota’s eight representatives supported the HALT Act (Halt All Lethal Trafficking of Fentanyl Act), which passed the House on May 25.

CRAIG KOHLRUSS, TNS – TNS A bag of evidence containing the synthetic

opioid fentanyl disguised as Oxycodone is shown during a Fresno County Sheriff’s Office

The opioid crisis has damaged so many lives. Many Minnesotans, however, are recovering and leading productive and meaningful lives. These stories of redemption are inspiring. Too often, however, fentanyl does not allow for recovery or redemption. The Drug Enforcement Agency estimates that nearly 40% of illicit pills contain potentially lethal doses of fentanyl. Six out of 10 pills with fentanyl tested by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration had a lethal dose.

The good news is that there is so much we can do to save lives. We can build fentanyl- free communities through education and outreach. We can focus resources on vulnerable neighborhoods and communities of color. Minnesota has one of the worst racial disparities in fentanyl deaths in America — a person of color is three times more likely to die, and a member of a tribal nation is seven times more likely to die. Years ago, no one talked about drunken driving — now everyone knows the dangers of driving while impaired. The same “sea change” needs to happen with public awareness of the dangers of fentanyl.

The priorities of law enforcement, prosecutor’s offices, and the courts must reflect the scope of this danger. Drug task forces should increasingly focus on prosecuting fentanyl traffickers and getting fentanyl off the street. Prosecutors and the courts should place urgency on expediting intervention and treatment for defendants possessing small amounts of fentanyl for personal use only. Law enforcement also needs additional tools and resources to hold fentanyl dealers accountable — especially when the fentanyl they sell results in death.

National Fentanyl Awareness and Prevention Day, which was Monday, was born out of grassroots organizations educating the public with the support of the DEA. As we acknowledge the loss and pain caused by prescription opioid abuse and addiction, we must also recognize that fentanyl presents a unique danger in that the likelihood of death is high. Street fentanyl is more accurately described as a poison than as a drug.

We are inspired to action by countless Minnesota families who have lost precious loved ones to fentanyl. As a community, Minnesota must say to every grieving family that you are heard and not alone, and we will do everything in our power to save other families from your pain.

Michele Hein is chair of the Fentanyl Free Communities Foundation. Paul Ostrow is chair of Fentanyl Free Communities. The organizations’ common website is fentanylfreecommunities.org.

The Fentanyl Free Communities Foundation highlights content related to the Fentanyl crisis. We are sharing these stories as part of our educational efforts. We are committed to raising awareness and positively impacting the fight against fentanyl poisoning in our communities.

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