Before COVID-19 plunged the world into a global health crisis, an epidemic of a different kind was ravaging communities across America. But the opioid epidemic hasn’t disappeared — in fact, it’s only gotten worse.
“Been doing this, law enforcement, for 28 years. I’ve never seen anything like what we’re seeing now,” Bismarck Police Deputy Chief Randy Ziegler said.
In 2020, opioid overdoses were at their highest ever in the country, according to the CDC, and in some of North Dakota’s biggest cities.
“This is a new trend,” Minot Police Chief John Klug said. “This is something that, we went from three overdose deaths in 2019 to 18 in 2020, and before that, we didn’t have any.”
That’s a sixfold increase in deaths caused by drug overdoses in Minot. Into 2021, the problem continues.
“We’ve already had several this year, it doesn’t seem to be slowing,” Mandan Police Lt. Patrick Haug said.
In Bismarck, opioid overdoses went from 36 in 2019 to 102 in 2020. Fatalities went up from four to 10. In Mandan, overdoses jumped from 15 to 27. And in Minot, the suspected fentanyl overdose calls went from 28 to 84.
Those numbers have kept the Heartview Foundation in Bismarck busy. It’s one of just three opioid treatment centers in the entire state.
“We oftentimes are operating on waitlists, because people are calling in for services and we have more people calling in than we have the capacity to serve,” Heartview’s Chief Operating Officer Jessica Brewster said, referring mostly to their residential services.
Jessica Brewster oversees the nonprofit’s methadone clinic, which is a medical treatment for people struggling with opioids. She says their services draw patients from all over the state, including rural areas lacking resources.
“We absolutely do have people that are driving to us from Beulah, Hazen, Dickinson,” Brewster said.
The nonprofit’s telehealth options have expanded since COVID, but the efficacy of that is less certain.
“They’re better than nothing,” Brewster said.
A program helping provide opioids misuse prevention education in rural areas recently received $800,00 in grant money. Strengthening the Heartland is a collaboration between both North Dakota and South Dakota State Universities to address shortages in services.
“One of the big things is that 90 percent of the counties have a mental health care shortage, so getting this knowledge and resources out the counties was this project,” Meagan Scott said.
Scott helps lead the project and says it’s a struggle for many to simply ask for help.
“In small communities, there’s also a stigma. You don’t always want to admit that you might need help, so that’s also a problem too, that everybody might find out about it,” Scott said.
While it’s well documented the pandemic is correlated with increases in addiction, alcoholism and mental health backslides for many — police say it’s hard to attribute current overdose surges to COVID.
“I don’t think there’s any way for anybody to have any indication that it would,” Klug said.
But all three did point to a common culprit predating COVID: fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be fatal even in tiny amounts.
“Now, they’ve introduced these fentanyl pills, which back in the day you’d never seen on the street,” Ziegler said.
Ziegler said pills laced with fentanyl are coming in from out of state, namely Detroit, Michigan.
“The street names are 30s or blues. People think they’re getting oxys but they’re actually getting pills that are laced with fentanyl, or they’re straight fentanyl,” Ziegler said.
Often, the pills purport to be something else, but pack fatal amounts of the synthetic opioid.
“They’re sold as cocaine, but there’s fentanyl in it. They’re sold as a pill, but there’s fentanyl in it,” Klug said.
The deadly drug adds another layer to policing when a user dies from an overdose. If dealers do get tracked down, whether they can be charged for the death is still murky in the law.
“It’s very hard to get any sentence that holds somebody responsible for the death because in a typical case you have to prove intent. Well, my intent was to deliver, not to kill you,” Klug said.
There’s currently a bill in the legislature aiming to address that by having an enhanced penalty for anyone who “sells, distributes, delivers, or conspires to deliver” drugs that result in death. It passed the State House 77-19 and is awaiting a vote in the Senate.
While changes in law might be coming, changes in policing have already taken place at the departments.
“Now we combine our investigators at the PD with investigators from the drug task force so they can use their knowledge,” Klug said. “We combine those two teams, it gives us extra support from staffing standpoint.”
All three departments say their officers carry Narcan with them, a non-prescription nasal spray that can reverse overdoses. It’s available at CVS, and with that kind of widespread availability, you might expect to see fewer deaths, but the opposite is happening.
“Narcan is probably kind of one of those wonder drugs, but it also has a backside to it, because yes, it’s helping us prevent death in these heroin and fentanyl overdoses. But it’s also giving these people understanding that if I do overdose, there’s Narcan. It can save me,” Haug said.
Though North Dakota’s overdose situation already is bleak, it’s still just a small glimpse of the problem because of underreporting. Still, police gave a reminder of the state’s Good Samaritan law, which says if you call for help and cooperate with law enforcement, you won’t be punished.
“If you were there, and there’s drugs there being used and somebody overdoses and you make the call, nothing is going to happen,” Klug said.
While the overdose situation in North Dakota doesn’t look to be improving quite yet, there are resources willing to help.