Northfield’s heroin problem: one year later

Northfield News Managing Editor Jaci Smith’s column in today’s paper is titled Heroin is here and it is a problem.

And one thing I was never completely confident of was the breadth of the “problem.” I could never really get an answer, even after I began working here, on the veracity of Smith’s numbers. He said that as many as 250 young people were abusing opiates in Northfield. I’m pretty confident now that he was right.

Reporters Suzanne Rook, David Henke and I have interviewed dozens of individuals on both sides of the battle: those who either knew of someone or themselves took or sold heroin and OxyContin (a pharmaceutical opiate) and those who were trying to save the abusers. We’ve spoken with medical officials, school officials, state health officials, county health and public safety officials and statisticians.


Here are the links to the Northfield News ‘Heroin One year later’ series of stories (final six not yet published):

Here are the links to the drug-related blog posts and podcasts we’ve done here on Locally Grown in the past year:

82 thoughts on “Northfield’s heroin problem: one year later”

  1. Another issue that goes with the drug problem in Northfield that no one is talking about is HIV/AIDS. I don’t think every heroin user used a clean needle every time, I think there was/is a lot of sharing needles going on.

  2. A philosophy of ‘harm reduction’ recognizes that some people will use drugs regardless of the efforts of the treatment and law enforcement communities. Needles, syringes, and all other equipment and supplies necessary for injecting drugs, along with information on how to reduce the danger of using drugs, along with treatment options, should be (anonymously) available in public health venues.

  3. Scott, I think that what happened to Gary Smith when he asked for the public’s help is a lesson to local law enforcement–the last thing they want is to appear like they want the same treatment Gary Smith received.

    I think everyone would welcome stricter law enforcement–even addicts who can’t quit (although they may not appreciate it immediately.) I am just cynical enough to not believe it will work.

    I really think we should post signs that look like wanted signs in all the businesses downtown with drug dealer’s names and pictures and a statement that they are not welcome to do business in this town–get out.

    The police know them. Lets get rid of them. (And don’t give me any “innocent until proven guilty.” People either did it or didn’t, and we happen to know some of them that are doing it. Even if evidence is not enough to convict, we can refuse them in our businesses.) If we won’t post the signs, at least we can give them to every business so they know who they are.

    We could put a group together for legal defense if any of our local drug dealers want to sue us–and we could beat them in civil court–although I doubt they would take us there. A united citzenry beat the James-Younger Gang in 1876–we should be able to run a few low-life drug dealers out of Northfield.

  4. I guess I am being too vigilante. I take back that we are going to run them out of townby ourselves–but we should meet regularly with the police and have them give us a report on the known drug dealers and what they are doing about them. When we know of a drug dealer we need to talk to the police and expect them to watch and follow and get in the face of those drug dealers so they cannot do their business. We need to form a group so that when we know they are around we can call our police liason and have the police show up.

    I want the police to focus on getting the drug dealers out of Northfield–not following the chain back to the main supplier–just stop them from dealing in our town.

  5. Jerold,
    Interesting thought. I guess the first question I would have is: are we picking up any people and putting them in jail? If yes, or there’s reason to think that we miight in the future, then that could be a great idea. If not, then we won’t have many opportunities for such an intervention.
    Still, if it could even help one person, it should be considered.

  6. When I spoke with Police Chief Taylor, he said that Northfield’s drug problem was “average” for a city our size. I did not ask about drug-related arrests, especially for selling drugs.

    I note that Jillian Wetzel was arrested twice, once for drug paraphernalia possession (2003) and once for marijuana possession (2008).

    I am sure that it could help more than one person. “If police investigators’ suspicions are correct, Jillian will be the fifth person in northern Rice County to die of a drug overdose in a little more than a year.” (

    If I’m elected to City Council, and my constituents are in favor of it, I will work with the authorities to create a voluntary intervention program for drug users and sellers as an alternative to jail.

  7. I think put the dealers in jail and do the diversionary programs for everyone else–I really don’t think putting addicts in jail helps anything but forcing withdrawal–which can be a good thing, but does not help them deal with their addiction after they get out. I really think the dealers need to be taken down.

    Chief Taylor should explain how our drug problems are “average” when we have more young people dying from drug ODs than car accidents. It is the number one killer of youth in our community. How is that “average?’

  8. Jerold and Patrick: The needs you’re talking about are typically addressed at the county level. I know you guys haven’t lived here very long, so you might not be aware of what’s offered by Rice County Corrections ( You might want to talk to someone down there and find out what they’re up to before trying to reinvent the wheel in Northfield.

    Then there are the pushers, who may or may not have substance use problems themselves but who are active enough that they’re able to support themselves with the proceeds from their dealing. Their needs, typically, are met by the state prison system.

  9. I was at a meeting where someone asked Chief Taylor about how Northfield’s drug problems compared to other communities. He said something to the affect that all communities have drug problems, but what seems to be different in Northfield is that heroin is the drug of choice. I think all of the Rice County heroin deaths have occurred north of county road 1 (running east/west out of Dundas.)

    Also, remember that Chief Taylor has been the chief only since last April.

    Before Taylor took over, and the Drug Task Force was reorganized into a Rice County only task force there were zero, yes zero, arrests for opiate trafficking in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Since the changes at the police department/drug task force, there have been three major arrests of dealers, according to the Northfield News.

    David Henson, you ask great questions above in your post #30.

  10. Curt – I wrote to the FBI to point out the death toll and ask them to let people know if feds are now involved in this heroin issue ? I would encourage everyone to start writing and bringing this issue to the attention of state politicians and federal authorities. In fairness, Heroin is a smuggling issue and cannot be solved locally. But for the same reason there has to be a more centralized distribution network and with some effort one would think this could be cracked (at least the part that gets into Northfield). I think the feds need to shake a little Homeland Security funding free because if I’m doing my math right and Northfield’s level OD spread nationally the annual death toll would 83,333 people each year (AN EPIDEMIC)

  11. Four years ago today, residents of Northfield and Faribault got a glimpse of what can be achieved when local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies work together:

    50 arrested in drug raids

    Two separate drug rings had been uncovered during a yearlong investigation. Besides the 50 people arrested on the first day of the sweep, something like 20 more were picked up during October 2004. So it can be done!

  12. There is no program or protocol available to help an addict, unless he or she wants to get better.

    Our police needs to use whatever means necessary to enforce existing law. If an addict get’s caught in a raid he/she should be given the choice to get better or go to jail.

    Recovery needs to be monitored the same way we monitor probation, if one breaks her “probation” we should put them in to jail.

  13. David L. (September 29 at 3:42 p.m.): I’m thinking not very many, if any. At the time, I was concerned about low bail amounts, and I also thought that the county prosecutor, Paul Beaumaster, was likely to drop the ball. I called him in October 2004 and asked him if he would be willing to provide a list, when the whole thing was over, of how many people showed up in court and what kind of convictions he was able to get. He said he’d be glad to provide it, but not surprisingly, I’m still waiting.

    Mr. Beaumaster had appeared at a meeting at the NCRC some months before the sweep and had spoken rather forcefully about his intention to confiscate property involved in the drug trade. (He actually made the claim that he could seize, for example, a Carleton dormitory; I was skeptical of that one.) So when I called him, it was partly to encourage him to at least talk to the owners of a nuisance property at 403 Union St., which was one of the properties raided. He may well have done that.

    There are other ways to measure success besides the number of convictions, though. Some of the people caught up in the sweep were given the opportunity to return home instead of going to court (i.e., they were deported), so if they turn up in the United States again, it’s a felony. That gives at least some level of protection for the future.

    One local storefront foreign remittance service folded in the wake of the sweep. It’s failure was publicly blamed on road construction, but from the timing it looked as if at least part of the drop in their business was a result of a drop in drug revenue due to the arrests.

    And, to end on a positive note, the apartment building at 403 Union St. is still looking much better than it did in 2004.

  14. A couple updates on the heroin front:

    Dr. Kristine Matson had a guest column this last weekend in the Northfield News, titled “Buprenorphine brings new hope for addicts,” which discusses that treatment option available in Northfield to help patients with their addiction to narcotics:

    Suzanne Rook, Jaci Smith, and David Henke won the annual Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists First Place ‘Page One’ Award for the Best In-depth Newspaper News and Feature in a paper with less than 50,000 circulation, for their article “Heroin: One Year Later.”

  15. Griff- I think the Rice Co. Sherrif’s comments are interesting. He said there were only 15-20 known users in Northfield. This is about 6-8% of what the police chief’s report stated. With these types of disparencies in figures being reported, is it any wonder that people don’t know what to believe?

  16. Shees John–do we have to do this again? I know at least 2 dozen drug users in the Northfield Area–since a dozen are dead do you really think there are only a dozen more? Please call Dick Cook. I think he can explain the number–because it does not jive with the experts estimates. Maybe he is just counting those they are arresting.

    But I will repeat myself. Experts claim users that you can extrapolate the users from the number seeking help–through drug treatment or detox–and that that number will be 10%. So based on the 25 seeking treatment during Chief SMITH’s term, the experts told him they expected about 250 users.

    1. Jane- I feel the same frustration you are expressing. I was only pointing out that two different law enforcement people are giving two entirely different estimates on heroin users, not drug users in general. Until someone publishes some confirmed statistics, then I think the general public is still going to be confused about what is really going on. Extrapolated estimates are not really statistics, IMO, if such can be had. Involved treatment providers can be more accurate than Joe Blow on the street, but these are still not confirmed statistics.

    2. Jane: Apparently not all experts agree. Which ones are you citing here? And I wonder if Sheriff Cook is referring to the number of “dependent users,” whereas you’re thinking of the “used at least once” population. In that case, you’re probably both right.

  17. John…. LOL

    Did you read the article in the Northfield News on athletes and drugs?

    I wonder if Kevin Dahle has read it and he can reconciliate the schools stand with his own position.

    1. Peter- I haven’t read the article yet. I get the NN second hand, a couple days late, so I will definitely look for the article. In which issue was it?

      Also, glad you enjoyed the little pun. I like to inject some humor (if you can call it that) anywhere I can. Seems there is so much heavy stuff out there.

  18. It was the cover story in the last Wednesday edition. It was a great article on the dangers of performance altering drugs.
    It also went in to the impact of alcohol and other drugs on athletic performance.

    1. Peter- Thanks. I found it in the edition Karen brought home yesterday. It is a good article. I thought the statement in the last paragraph was very realistic.

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