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Police Can't Arrest Their Way Out of American Indian Heroin Crisis

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek holds a town hall meeting on heroin's blow to Minnesota's American Indian community -- the same day 41 people were charged with drug trafficking.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek holds a town hall meeting on heroin's blow to Minnesota's American Indian community -- the same day 41 people were charged with drug trafficking.

Aida Strom, who works with American Indian patients at the Hennepin County Medical Center, spends her days helping mothers in drug recovery swaddle babies born with a physical dependence on heroin.

"If you've ever seen anyone go through withdrawal, if you've gone through withdrawal yourself, you understand the gravity of the intensity for a newborn baby," Strom says.

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Often, they're unable to stop crying. They tremble and struggle to breathe and sleep. They have tense arms and legs. They begin their lives with vomiting and diarrhea.

"Some babies need medicine, and they get morphine for that," she says. "So these are newborn, underweight babies, taking meds that are sometimes really difficult for adults to handle."

Strom has seen a definite increase in American Indian babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome in recent years, the product of interstate heroin pipelines that empty out on Minnesota's Red Lake and White Earth reservations.

Thursday morning, 41 people were indicted for allegedly trafficking drugs from Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis to the reservations. Investigators charged this ring with delivering kilograms of heroin through an extensive network of distributors.

The toll hits close to home at Little Earth housing complex in Minneapolis, where six people have overdosed in the last six months. In Hennepin County, overdose deaths have risen from six in 2008 to 50 by the end of 2014.

Sheriff Rich Stanek calls it a heroin crisis, something that law enforcement agents can't just arrest themselves out of. At the emergency town hall he convened Thursday night at the Church of Gichitwaa Kateri in Minneapolis, about 100 social workers, recovering drug addicts, families who have lost loved ones to overdoses, and other members of the American Indian community discussed solutions.

Mike Freeman, Hennepin County attorney, tried to encourage people to come forward with signs of drug dealing they encounter, and to seek treatment without fear of judgment. The county's drug court, he says, is designed to get help for small-time possessors and sellers.

"We try to follow this prescription, that there's a difference between a user who has an addiction problem and a dealer who suffers from an addiction of greed," he says.

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