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Coalition aimed at curbing prescription drug abuse

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput (from left) and Sheriff Bill Hutton listen as Ramsey County Attorney John Choi discusses the new East Metro Crime Prevention Coalition at a news conference last week.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said the prospect of jail time alone is not enough curb the growth of prescription drug abuse.

"I can lock these guys up all day long, but it's a public health issue," Orput said.

Orput and fellow east-metro prosecutors are pledging to work together with law enforcement and other service agencies to fight criminal activity. They formed the East Metro Crime Prevention Coalition and plan to improve their communication, share educational resources and crime prevention tactics and coordinate their response to emerging criminal activity.

The new coalition was rolled out at a news conference last week, where prosecutors and sheriffs said their initial focus will be on prescription drug abuse.

Prescription drug abuse is the third-leading cause of people seeking treatment services in Minnesota, behind only alcohol abuse and marijuana use, according to state figures.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said his prosecutors saw a 17-percent increase in the number of adults charged with felonies related to prescription drugs. Seventy-five people were charged and that was the "tip of the iceberg," he said.

"The vast majority of these cases are not reported," Backstrom said.

Surrounding counties have similar statistics, Orput said.

The key to reducing criminal activity is early intervention and prevention, Backstrom said. Coalition members want to share their resources and work closer on criminal cases that involve multiple counties. They also are reaching out to health workers and treatment experts, and want to raise public awareness.

"We need to stop these epidemics before they get started," Backstrom said, and provide treatment to prescription drug addicts.

Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton said prescription drug abuse is affecting law enforcement daily. There is strength in numbers, Hutton said, when he can consult colleagues on criminal issues.

Some work already is being done. Health and law enforcement officials have teamed up in recent months to stage prescription drug "take-back" events where the public can discard unwanted or unused medication. Those drug collection events will continue in the three east- and south-east metro counties and elsewhere.

Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows said a patient who is prescribed painkillers may only use some of the medication before putting the container in the cabinet.

"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 it."

Orput called the rise in prescription drug abuse a "debacle" affecting the young and old alike.

"We do have to get on top of it and we know that we can't do it alone, but when we team up we can make a difference," Orput said.

The coalition includes county attorneys and sheriff offices in Ramsey, Washington and Dakota counties. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said they plan to expand the group to include police departments within the three counties.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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