The next step in Northfield

We have a problem
Dozens of community leaders met in Northfield, Minn. to discuss concerns about drug abuse.
MPR Photo/Jessica Mador

On July 3, 2007 Northfield Police Chief Gary Smith announced that 250 young people in the town could be using heroin and oxycontin.

That number was repeatedly challenged in the following days. Chief Smith said he got the number from treatment professionals. But local drug treatment experts say the number of users in treatment is closer to a dozen. However, there are projections that the number of users could be much larger.

The chief has since taken a leave of absence.

Smith's attorney told MPR that Smith requested the leave to deal with a "prior medical condition" which has been exacerbated by the stress of the last few weeks. He did not specify what that medical condition was.

The leave of absence and the initial figure of 250 users were not on the agenda at today's meeting.

There is no doubt that police, school and community health officials are concerned about the problem of drug and alcohol abuse in the community.

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"I believe there is a problem in Northfield. I don't think there is any question about that. We're still working and gathering information and trying to get our hands around that. Again, we're concentrating on trying to be part of the solution," said acting police chief, Capt. Roger Schroeder.

Thursday's meeting was all about finding solutions. A broad cross-section of police, city, school and health care officials sat in a circle sharing ideas.

Consensus quickly emerged that despite the unwanted media attention brought by Smith's announcements, Northfield has a problem and something must be done to solve it.

Schools Superintendent Dr. Chris Richardson called the meeting a positive step.

"Thinking about the proactive side of this whole thing, not so much the sensationalism of what we've seen over the last couple of weeks but the reality within the context of the real problem, what can we do to help make it better."

Officials cited more than a decade's worth of cuts to social service budgets as an impediment to fighting drug abuse.

Capt. Schroeder says his department has less than $2 per resident per year for all drug enforcement activities.

Also at the meeting were two student representatives from Northfield High School. They agreed with the adults that more mentoring programs, job opportunities and after school activities would help prevent youth from getting involved in drugs.

Student Ruth Amerman says there is definitely a problem of drug and alcohol abuse among her peers. She says many kids are afraid to come forward about drugs out of fear of being labeled a rat by their friends.

She also criticized the police approach to drug prevention. She says the enforcement approach scares many kids away out of fear of being arrested or labeled a criminal.

"You might be ratting out, but in the end you're helping someone. There is still this kind of code of how you are supposed to act. I think it needs to more of a comfort system where people can go and talk to counselors, anyone who will make them feel comfortable and make them feel like they aren't criminals they aren't bad people; make them feel open to admit that they do have a problem and I think that is what we should focus on the most."

The meeting ended with plans for future meetings. Capt. Schroeder says the city will continue to work with community and student leaders to prevent drug abuse.