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Crow Wing County social worker calls addiction a disease, not a choice

Crow Wing County Community Services social worker Richard Grundtner, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, and a former addict, gestures during his presentation to commissioners at the April 16 committee of the whole meeting about the science behind addiction. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

A licensed alcohol and drug counselor for Crow Wing County recently gave a science-based presentation about addiction to the county board after some commissioner-related controversy.

Richard Grundtner, a social worker and recovering addict, spoke at the Tuesday, April 16, committee of the whole meeting. There are plans for his presentation to be given to county staff.

"If we continue to believe that it's a moral issue and that we can't fix a person, then we can't," Grundtner said. "But if we view it as a brain disease, recovery is possible. There is hope, and we've got to remember this: The brain takes time to heal."

He said drug abuse increases the amount of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, in the brain, in effect "rewarding" the brain. Food and sex elevate dopamine levels, but amphetamines, cocaine, nicotine and morphine are other substances that affect dopamine levels.

"How we see this really does make a difference in how we're going to address it. How we see and view this scourge that's happening—this epidemic—really is going to make a big difference in how we treat those that are addicted and afflicted," Grundtner told the commissioners. "We can do as we have been doing in this country and declare war on drugs and the people that use drugs and inflict more and more punishment, which we know isn't working. There's going to be a loss of interest and even compassion fatigue in trying to help those addicted and afflicted."

Commissioner Paul Koering's comments last month about drug addicts outraged many on social media and prompted a Brainerd Dispatch editorial admonishing the elected official.

"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," Koering said at the March 19 committee of the whole meeting.

Koering was absent from Tuesday's meeting. Many on social media had called for his ouster for the seemingly callous remarks he made about the methamphetamine problem in the county.

"You know that there's a pretty active conversation going on in the community about substance abuse and what are the underlying causes of it, why is it such an intractable issue," County Administrator Tim Houle told commissioners Bill Brekken, Rosemary Franzen, Doug Houge and Steve Barrows Tuesday.

The average number of children last year in the county in out-of-home placement per month was about 180, 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.

"I think it frustrates all sorts of folks that work in the chemical dependency field, many of whom have struggled with chemical dependency issues themselves," Houle said. "It is, I think, equally frustrating to all that the recidivism rate is as high as it is ... so I wanted to have you get some kind of exposure to the underlying science of addiction, so that you can have a better understanding of, 'Why doesn't someone just quit?'"

Grundtner, a husband and father, then gave a presentation to four of the five commissioners about the neurobiology of addiction and trauma, and how the county can best help addicts.

"This is more than just an individual issue. It's a community issue, but it's also something that's passed onto the generations, and I can say that, myself, I'm a fourth generation—at least that I'm aware of—addict and trauma survivor of abuse," he said at Tuesday's public meeting.

According to 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.

"The reason why it's so difficult to affect is the brain is literally affected, physically—the way we process thoughts, feelings, emotions, behaviors. All of that is significantly impacted," Grundtner explained. "We question and wonder why some people seem to relapse at the most inopportune times, such as having a court date ... and it's because that stress hormone starts to kick in. ... And that person just, without thinking, goes to that drug ... to that sense of comfort."

Koering, a former Minnesota state senator, took flak at the March 27 board meeting from representatives of Sober Squad, a support group, for his earlier remarks.

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.

"I expect a lack of understanding from those that have not struggled with addiction even though the science is there and it's growing even more," Grundtner said.

Frank Lee

Voted most likely in high school ... "not to be voted most likely for anything," my irreverent humor (and blatant disregard for the Oxford comma) is only surpassed by a flair for producing online videos to accompany unbiased articles about Crow Wing County about, say, how your taxes are being spent, by your elected officials, on issues or topics that matter to YOU.

Writing local feature stories about interesting people in the community, however, and watching and discussing movies are among my passions. ... Follow me on Twitter at either of these accounts: @DispatchFL (for news) or @BDfilmforum (for movies).

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