Police join forces against illegal use of legal drugs

Fighting the spread and use of illegal drugs has never been an easy task, but it's traditionally been a battle with defined perpetrators and strong public support.

The battle lines have become blurred in recent years, however, as narcotics are carried into cities not by smugglers but by delivery trucks, and change hands in homes instead of the street corner.

The surge in prescription drug abuse has inspired prosecutors and law enforcement agencies from Dakota, Ramsey and Washington County to create a new inter-county task force: the East Metro Crime Prevention Coalition.

The coalition is intended to bolster each agency's effectiveness through improved sharing of resources, strategies and law enforcement response.

"I think it's a very, very important and powerful way to go about addressing some of these issues," John Choi, Ramsey County attorney, said in a press conference Feb. 28 at the Dakota Lodge in West St. Paul.

Choi, one of the architects of the coalition, said prescription drug abuse was the obvious first target for the coalition because of the growing problem it poses throughout the Twin Cities, state and nation.

Pete Orput, attorney for Washington County, described the coalition as an innovative way for agencies and departments to pool resources to increase their effectiveness. He said it's especially helpful as agencies face tight budgets.

"We all recognize that we can't make a real big difference alone, not with our economic climate the way it is," Orput said. "When we team up like this, like John has brought us together, we do feel like we can make a difference."

Risk: the home medicine cabinet
The EMCPC will focus much of its efforts on education and publicity in order to curb the unsafe storage practices that lead to family, friends and others getting hold of narcotics.

Dakota County Sheriff David Bellows said often drugs enter a home innocuously, such as a person receiving a prescription for painkillers after a surgery. The problem, according to Bellows, is that the person may only use one or two of the pills during his or her recovery and then forget about the rest.

Still, they don't discard the drugs, figuring "they were so expensive" and "maybe I'll need them again."

"What they don't realize is an epidemic is occurring, and that is kids going into that cabinet and taking the medication," Bellows said. "Parents don't realize they may be their child's best supplier, and we want to stop that."

Bellows said the key is for people to use programs hosted by each of the counties and turn in unused prescriptions for safe disposal. That step alone would prevent many of the drugs from falling into the wrong hands.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom affirmed Bellows' push for public awareness, pointing out that many adults' problems with prescription drugs started when they were teens in the family home.

"We need to work at prevention, we need to work at education, we need to stop these epidemics before they get started," Backstrom said.

Room to grow
Backstrom also said the EMCPC would work on adding more members over time to increase its influence and reach, particularly with local police departments. The Maplewood Police Department has already joined the coalition, and Chief David Thomalla was on hand for the conference.

The rate at which departments join the EMCPC will of course depend on each individual agency. West St. Paul Police Chief Bud Shaver, for example, said while the coalition is a laudable endeavor, it isn't one he'd be able to commit to in the immediate future.

Shaver clarified that his department had not been invited to join the coalition yet, but he said even if it were his top priority at the moment is still hiring and training officers for his shorthanded police force.

"Our basic resources are stretched pretty thin," Shaver said. While collaborative efforts such as the EMCPC "offer a of opportunities, right now the basic responsibility is just to get up to full strength."

Luke Reiter can be reached at lreiter@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815.