As the threat of the incredibly lethal opioid fentanyl continues to plague communities across the country, a national grassroots movement, the “One Pill Can Kill” campaign, has been working desperately to counteract the spread. On Feb. 21, “One Pill Can Kill” advocates, law enforcement officials and lawmakers in Minnesota made their plea for swift and aggressive action in the Minnesota State Capitol Rotunda.

Each speaker at the “MN Faces of Fentanyl” press conference shared their unique, heartbreaking stories and perspectives on the matter, painting a grim picture of an epidemic that has grown exponentially in a short period of time. In the crowd were dozens of family members who lost a loved one to fentanyl.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, there were 1,286 reported overdose deaths in the state in 2021, a high-water mark that represents a 35-percent increase from 2020. 

The advocates and officials in the capitol urged lawmakers to pass bills that would curb the rise in fentanyl overdose deaths using the major influx in funds the state has received from opioid-related lawsuits. According to the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, the State reached settlements with 14 opioid manufacturers, distributors, consultancies and pharmacies over the last three years that will bring in over a half a billion dollars to root out fentanyl and other illicit opioids. 

A key aim of the proposed legislation is to provide an ample supply of Narcan, a potentially life-saving nasal spray that counters opioid overdoses, to all Minnesota schools. Another goal with the bills is to make fentanyl charges on par with that of heroin charges and give prosecutors more teeth when it comes to pursuing the various players involved in the opioid drug trade. 

To help illustrate what is at stake with this crisis, signs featuring the faces of victims of fentanyl in Minnesota and their stories were put on display. Hastings resident Bridgette Norring was at the capitol for the awareness event and devotes much of her life to combatting the crisis she knows all too well.

One of the signs in the display had a picture of her son Devon Norring, 19, who was a victim of a fentanyl overdose in 2019. Devon died after he and a friend bought and ingested pills on Snapchat that they believed to be Percocet, but turned out to be counterfeit pills containing fentanyl. 

Several Hastings and Dakota County families of loved ones lost to fentanyl were in attendance with Norring at the capitol. Along with a framed picture of Devon, Norring also carried with her a picture of Natalia Arreguin, another fentanyl victim from Hastings who died at the age of 19 after taking a counterfeit Percocet pill. 

Fake prescription pills, such as Percocet and Oxycontin, are being produced at an alarming rate, and the majority of them are now being laced with fentanyl. It has reached such a precarious tipping point that the Drug Enforcement Agency said in 2022 that 6 out of every 10 fake pills contain a lethal dose of fentanyl, an ominous likelihood that spiked 20 percent from their report in 2021. 

State Representative Dave Baker (R-District 16B) lost his son Dan 10 years ago to a fentanyl overdose. Like Norring, Baker has made it his mission to turn the tide on the opioid epidemic for the Minnesota House so that others will not have to experience the loss he did.

In the 10 years since losing his son, Baker has been championing bills in the house to tackle the issue from all sides. With the hundreds of millions of dollars in settlement money from opioid companies set to enter the State’s budget, Baker helped establish an opioid advisory counsel to help manage these funds.

As the counsel’s co-chair, Baker promised the families of fentanyl victims at the capitol that the legislation he and his counsel push forward will be methodical and all-encompassing.

“We’re going to do our darndest to make sure that we find the best way to get this money to our communities, our schools, our kids so they know the deadliness of what this stuff is and just to put people on a better life pathway,” Baker said.

In tandem with Baker, State Senator Kelly Morrison (D-District 45) has spent years drafting a bill that puts Narcan in every Minnesota school. Facilitating widespread access to the life-saving nasal spray is an obvious countermeasure in Morrison’s eyes, as it is safe, non-addictive and inexpensive.

“We need to get Narcan in as many places as we can so it’s easily accessible, and we need to be ready to protect our kids. We can’t wait for more tragedy before we act. Let’s get nasal Naloxone (Narcan) in every school in Minnesota so we don’t lose a single person on school grounds to overdose,” Morrison said.

Dakota County Sheriff Joe Leko spoke at the conference to help quantify the state of the fentanyl crisis in his jurisdiction and the state at large. He said that while legislation increasing access to Narcan would help save lives, it isn’t a strong enough measure on its own.

“1 and 5 that are administered Narcan still die. It’s a false sense of security, but with that said, it does need to be more available to our first responders and in our schools so we can save lives,” Leko said. 

The sheer amount of fentanyl Leko and his department has been seeing in the communities has him demanding for more in-depth reform. According to Leko, the Dakota County Drug Task Force seized over 110,000 counterfeit fentanyl pills and over 12 pounds of fentanyl in 2022. 

“We’ve seized more weight in pills in 2022 than we saw in 20 years combined. We need a strategic approach to awareness, prevention and rehabilitation to reduce the demand, and focus on law enforcement and prosecution to reduce the supply,” Leko said.

For Norring, standing on the floor of the state capitol and witnessing the lobbying efforts of law enforcement officials, politicians and fellow advocates was a “surreal” experience. Knowing that the stories of Devon and the other victims, as well as of their families and friends, will not fall on deaf ears gives Norring hope for a better future.

“It’s big because now their voices are being heard, our voices are being heard, their faces are being seen. There is a lot of good legislation that they are speaking of and if it gets passed it will protect our future generations for sure,” Norring said.

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