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After a workday in December 2011 at the Minnesota Department of Human Services, then 33-year-old Jeremy Drucker was feeling so ill that he walked to a St. Paul hospital rather than head home.

He had a successful career in public affairs that had taken him from a volunteer on a congressional campaign to New York City Hall and Gov. Mark Dayton's successful re-election effort. He lived with his girlfriend. He owned a dog.

From the outside, it looked great. Privately, he said, he was spinning out of control.

"It always appeared that things were fine," he said in an interview recently. "But it was getting harder and harder for me to hold that appearance."

His recovery from escalating substance abuse began with that hospital visit and has now led him back to the State Capitol. Late last year, Gov. Tim Walz chose Drucker, now 44 and 11 years sober, to be the state's first director of addiction and recovery.

The need is great. The number of opioid-involved deaths in Minnesota has soared since 2010, when there were 229, according to state data provided by Drucker. In 2021, there were 978 recorded opioid-involved overdose. Among them, American Indians were 10 times as likely to die from opioid overdoses than white Minnesotans and Black Minnesotans were three times as likely to die.

Drucker, who was running his own public affairs consultancy firm until the governor's office called, said this is the only job that would entice him to return to government.

Still in its development stage, the office will have a staff of five full-time employees and an annual budget of $1 million for the next two years. The mission is to provide quality, accessible and culturally responsive services every step of the way.

"There is a lot of trust that needs to be built," Drucker said. "It's a responsibility not just to the governor. It's a responsibility to the communities I'm working with."

He will draw on his recovery and his extensive professional history, fighting high-profile battles such as the proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act and copper-sulfide mining in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

"We don't demonize people who are using drugs," he said. "We're going to get better health outcomes if we treat it like a public health issue rather than simply a punitive issue."

Compounding the issue is that drug users increasingly are unaware of what's in the drugs they consume and, as Drucker said, "fentanyl is everywhere." Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more deadly than heroin. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration has reported that 60% of seized fentanyl contains a lethal dose.

Drucker's been crisscrossing the state from Rochester to Red Lake and to north Minneapolis for recovery events. His initial focus will be on the unsheltered as well as those who are on their way to and from jail and prison. In the second phase, he will turn to youth.

It's estimated that up to 90% of those incarcerated have substance abuse problems. Drucker said it's important to get them care while they're incarcerated and to keep it going as they leave.

He said he aims to build a comprehensive continuum of care for people experiencing substance-use disorders. The care ranges from prevention and harm reduction to intervention, treatment and recovery.

Drucker's goals include equity and developing policies to overcome barriers to recovery that often include unemployment and legal and financial issues.

In presentations, Drucker notes that the death rate from substance abuse is 10 times higher among the homeless than in the general population. One in three deaths among the homeless is from substance abuse, often from opioids.

But Drucker's approach won't be sending everyone to treatment. He wants to expand methods to include syringe and Naloxone distribution as well as kits that include fentanyl test strips and educational materials.

"It's important that we approach it without judgment, understanding that everyone has their own pathway and their own journey," Drucker said. "People need different things on their journey at different points."

Although the scope of the effort is sweeping, Drucker said the measure of his success will be whether the overdose rate declines.

Those who know Drucker say he's well-suited to the job. Joe Campbell, who preceded Drucker at human services and is now vice president of communications at Fairview Health Services, said Drucker's been involved in many of the toughest, high-pressure issues and gets the work done.

"He's no-nonsense," Campbell said. "He treats everybody with respect. He's not a show-boater, and he's fun to be around."

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said Drucker's professional experience and recovery are compelling. "I've watched people interact with him, and their walls sort of come down," she said.

"So much of his role has been meeting people where they're at and listening to people's stories," she said. "So many people have deep trauma connected to the opioid crisis. ... He shows up with such tenderness and humility into those spaces."

Drucker said the work has reinforced his belief in the power of sharing stories in recovery. "The opposite of addiction is connection," Drucker said, adding that his work is about "how can we give connection to people who are really isolated in a lot of ways."