Crystal McCormick and Tashya Swenson say they would not be alive today if it had not been for the county's assistance.

The women from Crosby and Brainerd, respectively, informally shared their struggles with drug addiction at the Tuesday, March 27, meeting of the Crow Wing County Board of Commissioners.

"We're here to talk about the articles that we saw in the newspaper about the methamphetamine crisis," Swenson told commissioners after they adjourned the meeting in Brainerd.

The women came late to the board meeting and missed the open forum portion. After consulting with the county attorney and the county administrator, commissioners agreed to listen to them because of their inexperience with parliamentary procedures governing meetings.

Commissioner Paul Koering, the Crow Wing County native representing District 1, faced criticism locally and from outside the region on social media for remarks he made at the March 19 committee of the whole meeting about the drug problem in the county.

"Why would I even care if somebody's doing these drugs? How is it affecting me?" Koering had asked Lt. Andy Galles from the sheriff's office at the March 19 meeting.

Brian Andrews of Baxter emailed the Brainerd Dispatch, for example, to make his thoughts known about the drug war in the county as did many others who took issue with Koering.

"I would like to share with the Dispatch, along with all the readers ... testimony to why letting one person die of this disease has a bigger impact than people are realizing-and not for the good," Andrews wrote.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of deaths due to overdose has been on the rise since 2002, from more than 20,000 to more than 50,000 in 2015.

"I don't know why we're in such a big hurry to save somebody that's like this? I guess it sounds kind of harsh, but-I don't know-it kind of gets rid of a problem, in my mind. Don, that was kind of harsh, wasn't it?" Koering asked county attorney Don Ryan at the March 19 meeting.

Ryan said at the meeting, "I think what Commissioner Koering was meaning to say is that when looking at the allocation of resources, we should consider how best to preserve life and maintain the quality of life in Crow Wing County simultaneously."

Out-of-home placements

Last year, more than 2,000 grams of meth were seized in the county compared to 17 grams of cocaine and no heroin. A pound of meth equals about 450 grams. A heavy drug user could possibly use between 1.5 and 2 grams a day, according to sheriff's office officials.

"Being that we lived it, we know how tough it really is," McCormick said about addiction and the preconceived notion addiction is easy to break. "Our Sober Squad mission statement: (is) to empower individuals to create healthier communities."

The average number of children last year in out-of-home placement per month was about 180-about 40 more than in 2011-and the expenditures for out-of-home placement rose from about $2.5 million in 2014 to almost $5.5 million last year in correlation with parental meth use.

"You can't just put a value on life ... so we wanted to know if there was anything that we can do to help educate or inform people," said McCormick, who has been out of treatment since August.

County department officials recently painted a bleak picture for the county board about the drug problem in the county and a hopeful one about what they are doing about it.

"We need to keep in mind that we are going to find solutions. Not to attack or voice opinions in outrage," Swenson posted Tuesday on Facebook, while others in Sober Squad called for removal of Koering, a former liquor store owner and Republican state senator, from office.

Meth seized in the state last year set a record high, according to Galles. The Minnesota Violent Crime Enforcement Teams seized 87 pounds of meth in 2008 compared to 625 pounds in 2017.

"This disease of addiction is a cunning and baffling disease, so I think it's hard sometimes for people who may not struggle with addiction to understand maybe that pull. ... 'Why not just stop?'" County Administrator Tim Houle said of what he called a "misconception."

McCormick said, "Basically, it is a choice to initially do the drug. It's not a choice that we unfortunately have let it control our lives. So when you're doing meth or you're doing heroin, it is overstimulating your brain, the chemicals in your brain ... and it becomes a hard one to kick."

Swenson was charged in Crow Wing County District Court with felony domestic assault by strangulation, gross misdemeanor interrupt, interfere, impede or disrupt 911 call, and gross misdemeanor domestic assault in a 2016 incident involving a roommate.

"It's not like we choose to be an alcoholic or an addict, you know? I, personally, growing up, my parents were alcoholics, and I kept telling myself that I would never be like them ... and I can't explain why it is that we can't just quit. A lot of us? It has to do with our past," Swenson said.

Bridges of Hope

The 28-year-old Swenson said she hopes to work with Bridges of Hope and Amy Wyant, a Bridges of Hope Self-Healing Communities Project co-coordinator, to incorporate Sober Squad with the project "to help as many people" that could be with the support group's participation.

The self-healing communities model aims to build a community's capacity to improve outcomes for health and social issues by reducing and preventing adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect and household dysfunction, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"I was seven months pregnant before I quit ... and I didn't know how hard it was until I got committed by the county, which saved my life. ... It is really a complex disease," McCormick said before county officials Tuesday, where she was dubbed a "walking miracle" by some commissioners.

The number of county attorney drug cases increased from about 250 in 2015 to 600 in 2017, and the number of sheriff's office drug cases also rose from almost 50 to 200 during that period.

"Sober Squad is still in its infancy ... but it's taking off," Swenson said about the support group, which originated three years ago in Mille Lacs. "We are chaptered in Duluth, in Fargo, down to the (Twin) Cities. ... We're just a group of people who get together. We are not anonymous."

In October, Sober Squad sponsored the Rising to Recovery Walk, which was aimed at raising awareness for the drug problems in the community and empowering those fighting addiction.

According to data released last week by the Minnesota Department of Health, suicide and opioid overdose deaths rose in the state in 2017, continuing a trend started in 2000 and reaching record levels.

"We help people out. If they need a ride to treatment, we give them rides. ... Lately, it's been a lot of me driving to meeting and help people get into detox. And we also do fellowship around the Brainerd area," Swenson said about Sober Squad.

The 25-year-old McCormick told the commissioners sometimes people worry being sober is "boring."

"What lures people into Sober Squad is the fellowship that we have. When we go to meetings, we invite everyone and everyone to come to the Friday night Pizza Hut or the bowling on Saturdays at Jack's House," Swenson said.

Among the county's current efforts is the Comprehensive Re-entry Project, which provides a full continuum of care to individuals who have acute or chronic mental health, or chemical health problems and they are involved with law enforcement.

Swenson told commissioners at Tuesday's meeting that Sober Squad would like to educate the community about addiction and about the support group's efforts to build healthier communities.

"Being able to find housing and find jobs-just to be an asset to the community-is something that we are slowly working on ... just being able to help with finding resources, and with the training we had last week, I feel pretty confident that we can help educate other people," Swenson said.

Sober Squad

● What: Support group for those struggling with drugs, alcohol or any other addiction.

● Where: Fellowship Friday at Pizza Hut, and Saturday bowling at Jack's House, in Brainerd.

● More info: https://bit.ly/2Otw7qI