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Drug courts, 'doctor shopping' discussed at recent H.O.P.E. meeting

Dr. Michele Thieman is building a community coalition to address the issue of drugs in the Park Rapids area. Thieman practices family medicine for Essentia Health in Park Rapids and Walker.

Last week, she facilitated a professional lunch and learn called H.O.P.E. (Heroin/Opiate Prevention and Education). From that meeting Thieman hopes to put together a group of individuals to first identify drug-related issues facing the area.

"I want people in this community who walk in different paths — different personal and professional paths — to start discussing how we can better take care of the people who live here," she said. "And addressing the use of prescription opioids and illegal drugs such as heroin is a very important component of that conversation."

Thieman says there is a drug problem everywhere, it's certainly worse in other parts of the country, but the Park Rapids area is not immune to it.

"Part of the problem is that it is very time- and energy- and money-consuming to try to treat the problems that people have. It is much easier to cover up depression, anxiety, joblessness, loneliness, a lack of education, stress, being overworked, etc., with drugs, alcohol or whatever. It has become more obvious to me that we are doing that, and physicians are enabling patients to not face real issues by allowing them to use opioid medications in excess."

About 70 people attended last week's lunch and learn, which featured a presentation by Sue Burggraf of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in Bemidji, who spoke primarily about how heroin is coming into the state and being distributed in the area.

Thieman is focusing on the problem of pain medication and is reaching out to people in numerous professions in the community directly tied to the issue, from medical providers and administrators to law enforcement to mental health providers to social workers.

During last week's lunch and learn a number of questions came up that generated discussion. One point brought up is the opinion the legislature reduced sentencing guidelines, making it tougher to put many drug offenders in prison. Rep. Steve Green responded by saying those guidelines were changed based on pressure from counties seeing a rise in caseloads.

The idea of establishing drug court in Hubbard County also emerged during the discussion. Drug court is a common term for problem-solving courts. Drug courts represent a shift in the way courts are handling certain offenders and working with key stakeholders in the justice system. In this approach, the court works closely with prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, social workers and other justice system partners to develop a strategy that will pressure an offender into completing a treatment program and abstaining from repeating the behaviors that brought them to court.

Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne expressed his support for drug courts in this county.

Another attendee at the meeting suggested law enforcement increase the pressure by making more arrests and putting more drug offenders in jail. Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes said in response to the lower sentencing guidelines law enforcement doesn't do its job any differently even though the penalties are less severe and based on what may or may not happen in the courts. The enforcement is still there.

Burggraf commented, "Drug courts are part of this puzzle and getting those users into that drug court and getting them to where they are actually reporting to somebody 10 to 12 times a week. I really think that's what a lot of these users are going to need, along with the treatment."

Aukes asked providers how common is it when they see a patient, how common are patients pain medication seekers or "doctor shopping," and how do providers track that behavior?

Thieman explained providers do check the Minnesota Prescription Database, which is a valuable tool. If a patient is established as a chronic pain medication patient, that database is automatically checked every time that patient comes into the clinic.

Green said during the meeting it's good to treat people who are addicted to drugs, but it's better to fix it before they are addicted. One approach, he suggested, is the court system is often manipulated by people with money, and people who should be behind bars for a long time are some of the first ones back on the street.

He asked Aukes, from a law enforcement standpoint, how the drug problem should be addressed.

Aukes answered by saying he is not an expert on the counseling or rehab part of it, law enforcement has it's purpose in the enforcement.

"What I do know is when they were locked up in prison or when they are in my jail, they are not selling dope to your kids. That's what I know for sure."

Aukes said there is a big difference between the users and those who are selling the drugs, and there should be a difference in the penalties.

The presenters talked about the importance of working together from education prevention, awareness and treatment to providing healthy activities for children and adults to engage in the community.

Thieman plans a follow up meeting Thursday, Jan. 26 and will be specifically inviting people who expressed interest in being a part of the task force.