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Crow Wing County: Board discusses how to tackle drug problem

The Crow Wing County Board meets to discuss the county's methamphetamine problem during a Committee of the Whole on Tuesday, March 19, at the Historic Courthouse in Brainerd. Erin Bormett / Echo Journal

The Crow Wing County Board spent two hours discussing the future of combating drug use - specifically methamphetamine use - during a committee of the whole meeting Tuesday, March 19, at the Historic Courthouse in Brainerd.

While no action was taken, the board heard perspectives on the county's current drug problem from both law enforcement and social work points of view and considered the direction the county may be heading.

Crow Wing County Sheriff's Lt. Andy Galles and drug agent Troy Nash began the discussion explaining the trends that local law enforcement has seen in the rise of drug use.

In 2014, the sheriff's department worked 82 drug-related cases with 24 search warrants. Those numbers increased significantly over the past five years, with 204 cases worked in 2018 and 80 search warrants.

"This is representative of how significant the problem is," said Galles. "And if that data continues, which we have no reason to believe it won't, where will that leave us in two, three, five years if we don't change our methodology?"

According to sheriff's department data, meth use is more abundant in Crow Wing County than cocaine or heroin use, and for the past two years has surpassed prescription drug abuse. The price of meth has also decreased significantly as more enters the market. A pound directly from a drug cartel costs an average of $7,200, said Galles, compared to the price of $20,000 more than a decade ago.

"The amount coming in is going up but the price per pound is going dramatically down," said Sheriff Scott Goddard. "Low level drug users can now become mid-level drug dealers. With a $3,000 tax return they can buy a pound (of meth) easily and start selling."

Paul Koering, District 1 county commissioner, asked how users are able to find dealers in the area.

Nash said that essentially, everybody knows someone who knows someone. He asked his sons as high school students how easy it would be for them to access drugs, whether it would be marijuana or something harder, even with everyone knowing their father was in law enforcement.

"It was scary," said Nash. "Both of my boys, who keep their nose clean, said, 'Oh, by the end of the day.' It's prevalent."

Beyond the issue of accessing drugs such as meth, there has been an increase in overdoses recently. Galles said emergency medical services in the county responded to 60 overdoses last year, often using the lifesaving drug Narcan as an emergency treatment.

"I don't know why we're in such a big hurry to save somebody like this," said Koering. "I guess it sounds kind of harsh, but it kind of gets rid of a problem, in my mind."

County attorney Don Ryan responded, saying, "I think what Commissioner Koering is meaning to say is that when looking at the allocation of resources, we should consider the best way to preserve life and maintain the quality of life in CWC simultaneously."

Goddard responded to Koering by telling an anecdote about a good friend of his who is a recovering alcoholic.

"He said to me, 'Scott, you could arrest me a hundred times, and it is not going to do any good, unless you find a program, or unless you find God,'" said Goddard. "We know that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. The forward thinking on this is that we know we have to work better and come up with solutions with the community services and with the county attorney's office and with the public."

Bill Brekken, District 2 county commissioner, said a lot of people don't ask to be in the situation they end up in. Many factors contribute to addiction.

As part of the "forward thinking" that Goddard referred to, Galles said the sheriff's department would benefit from adding two new drug investigators, incorporating a social worker into the sheriff's office directly and promoting proactive community engagement rather than reactive fixes.

"We have done this the same for the last 15 years," said Galles. "We need to get more current-day."

A social perspective

Goddard is an advocate for embedding a social worker as a sheriff's department employee to provide direct care and follow-up. He said the problem of drug use and addiction needs to be looked at from both a criminal and morality standpoint. He likened overdoses to domestic violence cases.

"When is the best time to offer assistance to the victim?" asked Goddard. "Right when we're there. Our initial contact. That immediacy is proven to work. If we have someone that can be tasked with the time to spend with that person (who overdosed), to offer them programs, they can help in real-time."

Community Services Director Kara Terry and Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan presented information regarding public efforts to combat drug use within the community.

"We know that addiction is a complex disease that can change the brain physically in ways that make quitting hard," said Terry. "Oftentimes people will think that (addicts) lack moral principles, lack willpower or are not choosing to get better. That is just not the case."

Terry and Ryan said that supports regarding housing, employment, mental health and spiritual fulfillment can also have an impact on the ability of addicts to quit their habit. By bolstering projects that increase the availability of these other supports, there is the possibility of seeing a decrease in drug abuse.

"We want to make this a community-forward venture," said Terry.

Community impact

Koering asked the presenters from the sheriff's department how this drug epidemic affects the average resident of Crow Wing County.

Galles said that according to recent data, north of 80 percent of people in the county's jail and prison systems are there because of drugs and/or alcohol or other crimes, such as burglary, to find enough money to feed their addiction.

"Most crime is related to drugs," he said. "Meth is an expensive habit."

There is also the effect that drugs have on the relatives of users, especially children.

According to community services data, almost half of the 460 child protection cases from 2017 involved drugs, and about 150 of those were meth-related. Within the umbrella of child protection, more than half of out-of-home placements for children in 2017 were due to meth-related incidents.

"This population impacts us campus-wide," said Terry.

The financial cost of these out-of-home placements isn't cheap either. In the past three or four years, according to community services, the cost of out-of-home placements has increased by $2.5 million.

Resources are tight across the county, and residents' tax dollars fund many county programs, including child protective services and maintaining the drug task force.

"This is impacting absolutely everybody," said Houle. "We had a tax levy increase last year, and this is one of the reasons why. If these proactive changes can change the model, change the experience, we can demonstrate that there is return on that investment. There is potential for it to be a good financial decision as well."

Steve Barrows, District 3 county commissioner, urged his fellow commissioners to consider the importance of investing in the fight against drugs.

"We manage our forests, we manage our water systems, but we also have to manage the quality of life in our area," he said.