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'We have more methadone-addicted babies' -- Minnesota statewide plan to tackle substance abuse presented

Key state officials traveled here on Friday to seek input from people dealing with substance abuse on the front lines.

They got an earful.

Law officers, treatment providers and court officials told a panel gathered at the Public Service Building about problems with prescription drug abuse, heroin, methadone and alcohol.

"We have more and more methadone-addicted babies in our community," said Phil Norgaard, human services director of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, citing one of the many concerns raised during the 90-minute meeting. "We have the highest per-capita death rate for methadone (in Carlton County)."

The occasion was the first of three regional meetings hosted by state officials to present the Minnesota State Substance Abuse Strategy. Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, who chaired the meeting, said Minnesota is the first state to come up with a statewide strategy to fight substance abuse.

The state has a compelling economic reason to take on substance abuse, Jesson said. She noted that the annual cost of alcohol abuse alone in Minnesota is $5 billion, and that 15 percent of the cost of state government is attributable to substance abuse.

Panelist Ann Busche, director of St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services, cited evidence that preventing a single child from being born with fetal alcohol syndrome produces a savings of $2 million over the lifetime of that child.

Given that, more needs to be spent on prevention and treatment methods that are effective, several panelists said.

Gary Olson, director of the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment, said he knows how to pay for it.

"Get the manufacturers, the sellers and users of alcohol to pay for some of the cost," Olson said.

Jesson noted that 20 percent of people admitted for substance abuse treatment in the Duluth area are admitted for heroin. Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said his officers who deal with drug addicts report heroin users invariably started with prescription drugs.

Methadone is used both as a painkiller and in treatment for opiate addiction. But it's also widely abused, Norgaard said. A Forum Communications series in September chronicled widespread problems stemming from methadone treatment in Minnesota, including abuse of prescribed methadone with resulting deaths and dealers selling it on the streets.

Jesson's department revoked the license of the Lake Superior Treatment Center, Northeastern Minnesota's only methadone clinic for the treatment of drug addiction, on Sept. 21. The clinic appealed and remains open, with a hearing set for Dec. 6.

John Lundy writes for the Duluth News Tribune