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State officials discuss substance abuse in region

WORTHINGTON -- State officials from the Departments of Health, Human Services and Public Safety traveled to Worthington on Tuesday and worked with local leaders to discuss concerns about substance abuse in the region.

"Fifteen percent of all state spending is attributed to substance abuse," said Commissioner of the Department of Human Services Lucinda Jesson. "In the Worthington area there have been 27 submissions for substance treatment, half for alcohol. We need to reach people before they hit the downward spiral of addiction and substance abuse."

The meeting addressed local issues and concerns regarding substance abuse, treatment and the Minnesota State Substance Abuse Strategy.

"The strategy is really a framework for the state government," Jesson said. "We're looking at the whole continuum of care."

The strategy is considered to be a blueprint for the future. It was created with the goal of incorporating several state departments to tackle substance abuse.

"We really need to look at the broader view and really take it in," said Ed Ehlinger of the Department of Health, who addressed public safety, social services, health services and education. "All of these things need to be engaged together; they're all connected."

The strategy's main focus is currently on prescription opiates and heroin, but state officials have noticed that different substances are more problematic in different areas of the state.

"Methamphetamine is still probably the number one drug of choice in this area," said Kent Wilkening, Nobles County Sheriff.

"For juveniles, alcohol and marijuana are what I see in court. There's a real attitude from teenager's view of marijuana as being acceptable and socially appropriate," District Court Judge Gordon Moore said.

The substance abuse strategy is designed to strengthen prevention efforts, support treatment and recovery, and reduce the production and sale of illegal substances.

One goal of the strategy is to educate medical professionals and counselors on substance abuse so the early signs of abuse can be recognized sooner.

"Training educators for addiction behavior and health is actually toward the low side," said Kevin Ree, a family practitioner with Sanford Health.

"We need to help train physicians to deal with substance abuse and treatment," confirmed Jesson.

Local concerns mentioned included lack of funding, language barriers and the need for a closer treatment center in the area.

"Part of our problem right now is that we don't have a place locally that we can send someone to treatment," Wilkening said.

"We've had kids placed five to six hours away from Worthington," Moore added.

The issue with not having a local treatment center is related to the lack of support. Families can't always drive the distances to be there and support the patient.

Officials were also interested in what was working. Several local leaders concluded drug courts were successful, but were also in danger due to lack of funding.

"I'd say from the court's standpoint, the drug court program is working," said Moore.

"Our biggest asset is our task force," Wilkening said. "We put a lot of time into our jail and treatment, and we try to give those in the jail as much treatment as possible."

Officials plan to take the comments and concerns from local leaders and audience members to help address what is needed in the area to minimize substance abuse.

"We really need to all be in this together," Ehlinger said.

Daily Globe Reporter Brianna Darling may be reached at 376-7321.