Minneapolis and Hennepin County officials on Thursday released a sweeping set of recommendations for tackling the opioid epidemic, with a focus on reducing opioid use among incarcerated people and the local American Indian community.
The recommendations, the result of over a year of work by a regional task force, look at solutions for preventing and treating opioid abuse in the Twin Cities. At a morning news conference, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said the recommendations would likely be implemented through future policies, budgets and grant applications.
“I can assure you that they are not just going to sit on my shelf. They are going to be used,” Frey said.
Nationally, abuse of opioids such as heroin, fentanyl and oxycodone has risen steadily over the last decade. So far this year, Minneapolis police have recorded almost 300 overdose calls, with 14 of those resulting in death.
“This opiate crisis is most definitely a public-health emergency and epidemic, and it’s one that we should be tackling head-on here in Minneapolis,” Frey said.
The task force recommendations include increasing funding for community-based treatment programs, improving treatment in the criminal-justice system and creating education campaigns for preventing opioid abuse.
One proposal would add more police officers to focus on drug enforcement. Others encourage building affordable housing for people who have been addicted to opioids and expanding in-hospital treatment programs similar to one at HCMC.
The city is also considering whether to decriminalize drug-testing strips, which are used to detect the presence of a specific drug, Frey said. The City Attorney’s Office, he said, would work to remove the product from its list of drug paraphernalia.
Some changes are already being made. Health care staff at the Hennepin County jail can now administer three different drugs to addicted inmates as part of their coping treatment, said Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson.
“We want these people to be healthy so they don’t get rearrested,” Hutchinson said. “People who are addicted to opioids need help from doctors, not from the Sheriff’s Office.”
Focus on American Indians
More than 160 people died from opioid use in Hennepin County in 2017. But abuse among American Indians is disproportionately prevalent in Minnesota, where they are five times more likely to die of an overdose than white people, according to the state Department of Health.
The task force, which included state and local leaders, community groups and health providers, first convened in April. Its members felt an increased urgency after a homeless encampment grew along Hiawatha Avenue last summer, with as many as 300 inhabitants at its peak, most of whom were Indian.
Meth and heroin use at the camp was rampant, with several people dying from apparent drug overdoses. It remained an issue even as its dwellers were moved to a nearby emergency shelter, with people injecting or smoking drugs outside.
The task force focused on Indians, said Mary LaGarde, executive director of the Minneapolis American Indian Center. One recommendation, for example, is to increase funding for programs like the center’s Bright Beginnings group, which helps Indian mothers with a history of substance abuse.
Yet she acknowledged that the problem of opioid addiction has not improved.
Every morning on her drive to work, LaGarde passes by the emergency shelter. On Thursday, she recognized one of the people there, who appeared to be on drugs, as her former preschool student.
“It breaks my heart to see that, because I know he has a family,” she said. “With the addiction that he has, that is what has taken over his life.”
She was hopeful the new recommendations, if properly funded, would help reduce the number of people overdosing or dying from opioids.
“My hope is that, with recommendations of the task force, it will help individuals like him, to meet him where he’s at,” she said.
Miguel Otárola • 612-673-4753