Parent cites concerns that laws hinder help
Several high-ranking local officials took part in Lakeville’s first public forum on opioid and heroin addiction at City Hall March 13.
Moderated by former Lakeville Police Chief Tom Vonhoff, the event drew dozens of residents, elected officials, parents and students to hear from experts that included Lakeville Police Chief Jeff Long; Rick Hiller, a recovering addict; Lakeville Police officer Jeff Hanson; addiction expert Carol Ackley; and Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, who called heroin “clearly the most deadly” of the criminal cases that cross his desk daily involving illegal substances.
He said there were 22 opioid-related deaths in Dakota County last year, three in Lakeville, and about half of all the crimes committed in the county stem from illegal drug use.
“Illegal drugs drive the crime rate, not only here in our community but across the nation,” Backstrom said.
Heroin is no longer an inner-city drug, but the most deadly and fastest growing illegal substance in the country, and gaining popularity in Lakeville, Long said.
He said it is more potent than in past years and is often laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent.
“The fastest-growing new users are young, white and middle-class,” Long said. “That’s what we are.”
Vonhoff said it is estimated there are over 500,000 heroin addicts in America now and over 8,000 people died of overdoses last year.
“We have an epidemic on our hands,” Vonhoff said.
What often begins as popping someone else’s leftover prescription pain pill quickly turns into an addiction until the drug becomes a perceived necessity, according to Ackley.
She said long-term opioid use makes molecular changes in the brain and rewires pathways so it acts as though the drug is as critical to survival as breathing.
Ackley advocated for the stigma attached to addiction to end, describing alcoholism and addiction as a brain disease, not a character defect.
“If your brain believes you need drugs to live, it’s going to make sure that you get it because that’s your brain’s job,” Ackley said.
Recovering addict Rick Hiller grew up in a good family in Eden Prairie, later living in Bloomington.
He said during his junior year in college, he had a sales job and a co-worker introduced him to opioids, which began an addiction he battled for a decade.
Hiller said he started taking a low-grade pain-killer, but his use escalated to stronger prescription drugs like Vicodin, Percocet and Oxycodone, and then he began injecting Oxycontin.
Eventually, he lost his job and was shooting heroin.
“It destroyed my life,” Hiller said. “I ended up in Minneapolis with one bag of things, on the streets with no car. … It was awful.”
Mugged and assaulted several times while homeless, Hiller said he nearly died from an overdose, then was able to stay sober two years, refusing even to take medication for minor depression, but found himself in the throes of addiction again.
“Even if you stopped using, if you start using again, it’s like you were using that whole time,” Heller said. “You’re instantly plunged back into the world of addiction more severely than when you started.”
Hiller said after being “kicked out” of halfway houses, he was drunk on the streets of Minneapolis and decided to take his life and began making his way to a nearby bridge, planning to either hang himself or jump.
“No texts, no Facebook posts,” Heller said. “I didn’t want anyone to interfere.”
Before he could get to the bridge, he collapsed of heat exhaustion and woke up to a man giving him canteens of water then dragging him into the shade.
He vowed to guard Hiller as he slept and when he woke, the man showed him survival tips. Hiller said he regained his desire to live and that night, he found himself walking the streets in a downpour flooded in the beam of headlights.
“It was a friend of mine who had been out looking for me,” Hiller said.
The friend said he went out to look for Hiller because he just felt like something was wrong.
Hiller completed treatment and then entered transitional housing at Redemption Ministries, where he said he found safety and healing to begin rebuilding his life.
He said Minnesota has excellent treatment resources, even for people without funds, and a strong recovering community to help each other stay sober.
Hanson worked narcotics for five years undercover and investigated cases involving small street dealers to international drug crimes.
He said the real gateway drug is not marijuana but prescription pain killers, but taking three or four pills a day can easily cost hundreds, so most turn to heroin, which is 500 percent to 1,000 percent cheaper.
“So, what was once never even imaginable to a prescription pain (pill) abuser now becomes a necessity,” Hanson said.
Vonhoff, who worked undercover narcotics in the past as well, said officers saw lives stolen by addiction and the dealers who supply them the drugs.
“There’s no living that goes on when someone’s suffering from addiction,” Vonhoff said.
Lakeville resident Janelle Stroh said her 17-year-old son rapidly changed from being a good student, talented and active in sports, to an addict on probation.
She said he started smoking marijuana at 14 and soon “was on anything and everything he could get a hold of.”
Stroh cited frustration with Minnesota’s data privacy laws that inhibit parents’ ability to get their teens help.
For example, at 16, he signed a document that banned her access to his urinalysis test results.
She said he is now in a treatment program in Utah because its laws allow parents access to all records.
“It’s a great, great program,” Stroh said. “But his counselor out there even said the reason he can do his job the way he can do it is because the laws are different in Utah. Parents have the power to know everything that’s going on with his treatment.”
She said they also encountered issues when there were no open treatment beds or available options to help her son.
“They told me many times their hands were tied,” Stroh said. “‘I’m in crisis!’ I would scream into the phone.”
Stroh described the times she and her family have endured as “heartbreaking” and stressful.
“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” Stroh said. “If it can happen to us – middle class, Lakeville – it can happen anywhere, and it does.”
Hiller said the time has come for the stigma of addiction to be erased.
“We need to start talking about it and we need to be solution-oriented,” Heller said.