Prescription to addiction: Examining Minnesota's opiate problem

- For the last four months, thousands have flocked to the gates of Paisley Park in Chanhassen, Minn., leaving behind letters and mementos, with some hoping in return for an answer to a one-word question: why.

The life of Prince Rogers Nelson -- colorful, complicated and mysterious -- was, at the end, tragically predictable.

When paramedics arrived at Paisley Park on April 21 the only thing unique was the patient. The cause of death, an opioid overdose, is by now an American cliché.

A Problem in Minnesota

In the last decade, opiate-related deaths in Minnesota’s two largest counties have spiked. According to data collected by Carol Falkowski, former director of the Minnesota Department of Human Services alcohol and drug abuse division, opiate-related deaths in Hennepin County have increased by 40 percent since 2006 -- rising from 69 fatalities in 2006 to 97 in 2015. Over the same period, opiate deaths rose by over 70 percent in Ramsey County – increasing from 27 in 2006 to 47 in 2015.

“I see way more people who are addicted to opioids than I am even aware of,” Hennepin County paramedic Nathan Koranda said. 

On any given night Koranda knows he might get the call. The back of his ambulance carries the life-saving drug Narcan.



But Koranda knows, for all of Narcan’s success pulling someone back from what otherwise could be a fatal overdose -- there is no quick fix for the problem of opiate addiction.

A Common Origin

Until very recently, prescription opiates were not considered a catalyst for addiction.

“When I was a medical student in the late 90’s early 2000’s this was not as big of a concern and we did not get taught about this,” local emergency room doctor Chris Johnson said. 

Johnson, who asked Fox 9 not to name his hospital, now spends much of his time talking to doctors about the dangers of over-prescribing. But when he was first starting, he says the tone from his superiors was very different. 

“I was taught that these medicines if given to patients in pain could not be addictive. We were told that the rate of addition was less than one percent,” Johnson said.

But, Johnson says he later realized through firsthand experience that this was not the case. Johnson places much of the blame on a pharmaceutical industry focused on the bottom line and a medical industry resistant to change.


Progress?

In March, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention surprised many with its first ever guidelines for handing out opiate prescriptions

The CDC recommends doctors avoid prescribing opiates unless absolutely necessary. For medical professionals critical of prescribing habits, it was a watershed moment. All across the country, the message has become increasingly clear, opiate prescriptions need to be carefully considered. 

But on the streets of Minneapolis, as the supply of opiate painkillers dwindles, another problem continues to thrive.

Heroin, a drug once on the way out, is now a drug of choice for many who have struggled with prescription opiates. The high is very similar and the result, because of its often unknown potency - even more dangerous.
On streets throughout Minneapolis, regardless of their socio-economic background, chances are heroin has touched a life.

My Son, Nick

Laura Moore will never forget the day she got the call, a voice telling her that Nick Moore, her son, was dead after overdosing on heroin.

Just days earlier, in February of 2012, Laura had dropped Nick off at his apartment -- never imagining it would be the last time she would see her son alive.

“He kind of hobbled up those steps, I’m really glad we picked him up from the airport that time,” Moore said.

Nick had just returned from a rugby tournament in Las Vegas. The 25-year-old University of Minnesota Master’s student was not a regular heroin user, according to his mother. Laura Moore says Nick had previously struggled with opioid pain pills and believes he turned to heroin to help manage the pain from injuries following his rugby tournament.

In the weeks and months after Nick’s death, Laura struggled to understand why.

“The coroner gave me his phone number and I called him I don’t know how many times, but I would kind of like get me head to one point and then think like ok so now I’d keep calling them over and over,” Moore said.

Turning a Corner?

In 2015, opiate-related deaths in Hennepin County decreased by just fewer than five percent -- a sign perhaps that the system is fighting back.

Then in April, the world came to Chanhassen to remind just how far we have to go. Prince, like Nick Moore, was one of us and in the battle against opiate addiction every life is worth saving.


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