When we discuss the opioid epidemic, we generally discuss it as a nationwide problem. Rarely do we really hone in on the fact that some states get it worse than others. But there are some states in which heroin addiction has reached truly epidemic proportions, and the body count is only getting higher. Minnesota is one of these states. And depending on who you ask, heroin addiction in Minnesota has been spiraling out of control for at least two years. It’s a problem that just doesn’t seem to be getting any better with time.
There might be several different reasons for this. When any disease reaches epidemic proportions, we must divine the cause by looking at three categories of reasoning. These categories can be simplified by viewing them as questions. First, how did the epidemic begin? Second, what continues to fuel the epidemic now? Third, what are we lacking that could put a stop to the spread of the disease? Many people in Minnesota continue asking these questions in response to the heroin epidemic. Unfortunately, however, addiction has yet to loosen its grip on the North Star State. Things are bad, and only getting worse.
Addiction epidemics provide something of a unique problem. With most diseases, the third question will lead you toward a proper dispersal method for the cure. But there is no panacea for addiction. The opioid epidemic in our country therefore presents a problem that might take much longer to fix than it took to get started. Fortunately, some of our research on the addiction problem in Minnesota might actually prove useful to advocates against heroin addiction worldwide. Naturally, however, we won’t jump straight to possible solutions until discussing how the predicament began.
How Did the Epidemic Begin?
In 2015, a Star Tribune reporter attributed a contained addiction epidemic in two Minnesota-based Indian reservations to drug traffickers. Since Native American reservations often find themselves under-funded, they seemed like an easy target. Investigators believed that traffickers were moving large quantities of heroin (worth millions of dollars) across Minnesota’s borders. At the same time, these traffickers also moved drugs through major cities in Illinois and Michigan. Tribal police helped take down the drug ring, but the problem did not simply vanish. Why? Because the state as a whole was already in the midst of its heroin epidemic.
According to a report by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), there were ten or fewer heroin-related deaths in Minnesota during 2008. Six years later, in 2014, Minnesota reported more than one hundred deaths by heroin overdose. Now, let’s compare that to deaths caused by opioids in general. Minnesota encountered just north of 225 such deaths in 2008, and about 319 in 2014. When you compare these numbers, you’ll find an astonishing trend. While there may be considerably more deaths caused by opioid medications than by heroin in either year, the bulk of the increase between 2008 and 2014 was caused strictly by heroin. This points to heroin as its own unique epidemic within the larger opioid crisis.
While the demographics show that Caucasian users suffer more casualties in Minnesota than any other race, other communities are affected as well. The Native American community, both on and off the reservations, overdosed at almost five times the rate of whites for a range of several years from 1999 to 2014. African-Americans in Minnesota overdosed at a significantly high rate as well. Given that each of these groups suffers horribly in their own way, it seems sufficient to conclude that the heroin epidemic in Minnesota has very little—if anything—to do with demographics.
MPR mentions one additional source of Minnesota’s heroin problem—the layout of certain counties. Counties with dense populations actually aren’t seeing the worst of the problem. This isn’t to say that no users inhabit these counties. But looking strictly at overdose deaths, the problem is worse in counties such as Cass and Mille Lacs. Since these counties are more rural and spread out, emergency care can’t always arrive in time. If someone suffers a heroin overdose and the only care is too far away, they might stand little chance of making it to the hospital alive.
Why Does the Epidemic Persist?
It’s hard to narrow down the cause of Minnesota’s heroin epidemic, other than by looking at heroin itself. Much like prescription opioid medications, heroin is strongly addictive. We couldn’t label demographics as a cause of the epidemic because drugs do not discriminate. Additionally, the apparent increase in opioid prescriptions for chronic pain ensures that numerous people get addicted every day. When they can no longer afford expensive medications, many turn to something cheaper and potentially more dangerous. In this way, the opioid epidemic ensures that the heroin epidemic will continue as well.
Minnesota also finds itself at a disadvantage in that the population issue can’t really be changed. Every state has budget limitations. Perhaps Minnesota, or at least the most affected cities, could increase funding for emergency care. This might cut down on death by overdose. But this also limits the state’s available budget for treatment programs. Unless they can find adequate funding for both causes, they’re stuck choosing between overdose prevention and addiction treatment. Do they increase emergency services to prevent people from dying, or do they provide a service that will help those who live to recover and achieve sobriety? This is no easy dilemma.
Another problem might be a lack of sympathy. There isn’t much push to solve an issue that the majority of the population doesn’t care about. And while we like to think most people are good at heart, many certainly subscribe to a few addict personality myths. They see addicts and alcoholics as bad people who made bad choices and have few intentions of changing. On the other side of the coin, there are also those who glorify and defend drug use. These individuals also lack sympathy, viewing anti-drug funding as a scheme to limit our personal freedoms.
This last problem seems best highlighted by viewing the response to a recent MPR article pertaining to an overdosed couple in Ohio. The authorities photographed their four-year-old child, who sat in the backseat of the car as his parents overdosed in the front. Many comments expressed sympathy for the child. Others defended the overdosed couple’s privacy. Here’s a snippet from the featured comment on the article:
I really hope the couple pictured here sues them and gets a significant settlement. No doubt the city government will then whine that it has fewer resources to combat drug abuse.
Notice how these words lack sympathy not only for the child, but for the couple as well. Perhaps the user expresses sympathy for their privacy violation, but not for their disease. Without improving the public perception of addicts and their struggles, we can’t expect Minnesota’s heroin epidemic to resolve itself.
What Can Minnesota Do Now?
There are two types of issues currently perpetuating the heroin problem in Minnesota: those pertaining to people, and those pertaining to infrastructure. Then you have a few outliers, such as drug trafficking. On one hand, trafficking is a people problem. But on the other hand, we require strong involvement by various law enforcement agencies to combat the issue. This takes funding, an issue we discussed in regards to emergency care and treatment programs. It’s safe to assume that any problem involving infrastructure will require money if it is to be solved.
We might suggest two ways of ensuring that Minnesota acquires this funding. The first and easiest is to contact a government representative. Get someone on your side who can work with other representatives to fight the problem. Someone with enough influence to convince budgetary committees to care about heroin addiction. And if you can’t find someone of this caliber, you might try to raise the money yourself. Organize a charity fundraiser, perhaps with a local church or other institution dedicated to helping people. Make it very public that the money will be given to Minnesota’s government, with the stipulation that it be used on issues affecting overdose prevention or addiction treatment.
Organizing a charity drive might not be easy, but the potential results are worth it. When people see one drive succeed, they might consider starting one of their own. People who care about the opioid epidemic in Minnesota will realize that they have the power to help. And the people who lack sympathy will see the good-hearted souls behind this cause. This might soften some of their views. In other words, you can solve one of the greatest people problems while raising money to fight infrastructure problems at the same time. If more people act in this way, we might see some real progress in Minnesota. And who knows? Perhaps that progress might even trickle into other states currently struggling to fight heroin addiction.
With heroin addiction in Minnesota hitting all-time highs, her border states would be justified in worrying. Both former users and family members who understand the pain of heroin addiction should speak out. Organize events and promote understanding. Let people know that this epidemic affects more than Minnesota. Our nation is supposed to be one people united. As one people united, we can fight to end the heroin epidemic in Minnesota—and potentially everywhere else.
If you or someone you know is currently struggling with heroin addiction, contact us today for more information on available treatment options.