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Opioid crisis accelerates in Minnesota

Overdose deaths have surged across the country in recent years, exacerbated by the presence of fentanyl and now, the pandemic.

Law enforcement in northern Minnesota announced more than a dozen arrests Thursday in connection to a drug trafficking ring that they say moved massive amounts of fentanyl and heroin from Chicago to the Duluth area.

It's only the latest layer in the complex and long-running opioid crisis, which has cost hundreds of thousands of American lives dating back to the 1990s, when prescription opioids for pain relief started to become more widespread. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the country remains in the midst of the "third wave" of the opioid epidemic, exacerbated by the presence of fentanyl and, over the past few years, factors brought on by the pandemic.

"It's gotten so much worse. We've surpassed the tipping point," said Colleen Ronnei, the executive director of Minnesota non-profit Change the Outcome. "The CDC reported the most number of overdoses in a 12-month period ever, in the history of our country."

Ronnei lost her 20-year-old son, Luke, to an accidental overdose in January 2016. Since then, CDC statistics show that overdose deaths in Minnesota have nearly doubled, reaching 1,187 from the period of June 2020 to June 2021. Nationwide, roughly 100,000 Americans died during that same time frame.

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That's why Ronnei's non-profit works so tirelessly to raise awareness with young people and their parents across the state of Minnesota, including many visits to schools. Over the past several years, Ronnei's work has taken her as far north as Bemidji and Duluth and as far south as Edgerton, Faribault and Rochester. 

Fentanyl, which was included in the large northern Minnesota drug bust, has "changed the whole landscape of overdoses," according to Ronnei. Advocates, as well as law enforcement, warn that fentanyl can be especially dangerous because it's so potent and often mixed with other illegal drugs. 

"It only takes one time to have one of those pills, and are you going to get that pill that has fentanyl in it, or are you going to get the one without the deadly amount?" Ronnei said. "Either way, it's Russian Roulette."

Ronnei sees a number of paths forward to help fix the crisis, ranging from better education, expanded treatment and availability of Narcan, and more recognition of the factors that lead to overdoses. 

"It has to be a broad approach. We can't do it through law enforcement, can't do it through the judicial system, can't just treat our way out of it," Ronnei said. "We're getting better at it all the time, on multiple levels, but it's a crushingly slow process. And it's heartbreaking for me to know that every day, there is a young person in the state of Minnesota who is overdosing."

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