Many area youths have been asking Hiawatha Valley Mental Health Center counselor Todd Hoffe what to do when someone has a seizure. "Call 9-1-1," he tells them. "No, other than that," they respond. They want to know what to do to help friends who are suffering seizures caused by synthetic marijuana without getting in trouble, Hoffe explained.
Winona's drug problem has not gone away. "Kids are dying out there," Hoffe said at a meeting on substance abuse. The comment was not purely figurative. The use of synthetic drugs like "plant food" and synthetic marijuana is still unusually high in Winona, and users are becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol at younger and younger ages, presenters told an audience of 50 parents, nurses, and community members last week.
Winona is a lot different than La Crosse: there heroin is popular, here it is synthetic drugs, said Hoffe. The cities are similar, however, in that they both "have a serious drug problem and it's focusing on kids," he told the crowd last week.
The drug scene in Winona darkened considerably when synthetic drugs like K2 (synthetic marijuana) and "plant food" (often Alpha-PVP) came to town. At first, prosecutors were handcuffed by the proliferation of synthetic compounds, which can be churned out faster than laws against them. Unusually rapid legislative action to address synthetic drugs helped a lot, but the legislature still needs to do more, said Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman. Now, plant food variations known as "turbo" are popular and marijuana smoking has risen among area youths, presenters told the audience.
Synthetic drugs are particularly vile. "We've had a lot of lifetime meth users come in to law enforcement and say it's so much worse than what they're experience on meth," explained Assistant County Attorney Christina Davenport. A search of "plant food" at www.winonapost.com reveals dozens of reports on the drug's impact on the Winona community: rising numbers of child protection cases, violent hospital patients, desperate burglars, gun-wielding dealers, and crazed addicts. The Winona Post investigation "What part did 'plant food' play in death" details how an earlier form of the drug contributed to Chase Kolstad's precipitous slide towards a lethal encounter with local law enforcement.
The impacts add up. "Our system is spending beaucoup bucks because of this problem," said Winona Police Department Community Liaison Officer Kevin Kearney. This abuse costs the user and the user's family a broken life; community health and safety is compromised, and taxpayers bear the burden of serious costs to the criminal justice system, he said.
It is more than a criminal justice issue, however, presenters explained. "It's a public health problem. It's an education problem," Sonneman said.
"A lot of people look at this as bad people who need to be locked up. Do you think people want to go through this?" Hoffe asked. "I have kids in my office in tears because they can't stop." They use it as a form of self-medication for mental health issues, Hoffe said.
There is hope and there has been progress, notably the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) and drug court, but we need to do more, the presenters told the audience. The legislature needs to give us more tools, Sonneman said. We need to do more in schools, Kearney explained. Parents need to do more, too, Hoffe added.
An ex-addict shared her powerful story of decline and redemption with the audience. "Recovery is hard," she said. "It takes family, doctors, the legal system to offer encouragement to change. What we need to do is say, 'What you're doing is not right,'" she continued.
Winona County commissioners Steve Jacob, Jim Pomeroy, and Marcia Ward attended the meeting, and voiced their support for the cause in interviews with the Winona Post. "Intervening early makes a lot of sense," said Jacob. Effective drug abuse prevention is a fiscal and humanitarian win-win, he said.
"A lot of people can be misled into thinking that everything is fine only to find at some other time that things aren't going well and haven't been for a while," Pomeroy told the Winona Post. "I think that the key is to make sure that people have knowledge of what the problem is and that nobody is immune to it."
Ward said she valued the opportunity to hear first-hand stories from people working with drug abuse day-in and day-out and learn about the seriousness of youth drug abuse. School officials "seemed to be absent partners," Ward added, "though I know they're working on it, too."
The talk was hosted by Live Well Winona, Hiawatha Valley Mental Health Center, and the Winona Police Department. Those and other groups are organizing a new substance abuse prevention coalition.