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Alaska's heroin scourge: Opioid task force might be the solution the state needs to battle the epidemic

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial: 

Deaths nationwide from opioid overdoses are at a record high. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year called attention to the alarming news. One of the leading causes of this across the land? Heroin. It’s use is on the rise. And Alaska, although a great distance from the Lower 48, is seeing the drug’s spread and its deadly impact. Information from the state of Alaska shows the number of heroin-associated deaths in our state more than tripled from 2008 to 2013. On the law enforcement side, the number of arrests in Alaska related to heroin increased 140 percent in a slightly shorter period, 2009 to 2013.

Want some real examples? Here are some excerpts from stories published in the Daily News-Miner just since January of this year:

• Jan. 23: A Bethel woman who fatally injected her father with heroin will spend up to two years in prison.

• Jan. 27: After a weeks-long investigation, members of a Fairbanks multi-unit task force arrested a Fairbanks man after finding $50,000 worth of heroin, as well as cash, weapons and drug paraphernalia, according to Alaska State Troopers. A tip through Crime Stoppers on Jan. 5 alerted authorities of possible distribution of heroin from a home off Sheep Creek Road.

• Jan. 29: A North Pole man was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison after crafting a complex plea deal with state and federal authorities. Ray Don Groskreutz, 39, appeared in U.S. District Court Friday morning and pleaded guilty to one count of trafficking heroin and methamphetamine and one count of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. The charges stemmed from a July 2015 incident in which Groskreutz was found inside a Fairbanks hotel room with 200 grams of methamphetamine, 71.1 grams of heroin, $17,000 cash, a digital scale, a drug ledger, a Taser and a .380 cal. pistol. 

• Feb. 23: A second person has been charged in connection with a raid in Tok that netted investigators 32 firearms and more than $35,000 in illegal drugs. Officers seized 10 grams of methamphetamine, 49 grams of heroin, 42 morphine tablets, seven OxyContin tablets, 32 assorted rifles, pistols and shotguns — about half of which were stolen — as well as gold nuggets and $1,618 in cash, according to troopers.

• March 8: An Anchorage grand jury has indicted a man suspected of distributing heroin in Dillingham. Prosecutors say he was found Jan. 9 with more than 10 grams of heroin with the intent to sell.

• March 31: An alleged North Pole heroin dealer was arrested without incident Wednesday evening after a standoff at a detached garage building between Fairbanks and North Pole.

With heroin obviously having made a comeback, it is encouraging to learn this week of the creation of the Alaska Opioid Policy Task Force. This group is being created by the Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, and the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

The Alaska Opioid Policy Task Force will, according to a written announcement, consist of 20 people. Its members will include recovering opioid abusers and members of their families as well as people from the public health system, the behavioral health system, law enforcement, emergency medical responders, pharmacists and others. Gov. Bill Walker and the Alaska Legislature will also be represented.

The task force is expected to act with some urgency: It is to recommend a course of action to Gov. Walker and the Legislature by Nov. 30.

The new group will look at numerous aspects of the opioid problem, of which heroin is major part. Among the many subjects the panel is to investigate are heroin importation, how opioids are prescribed for pain management, improving the opioid treatment system in the state and possible collateral public health concerns of opioid abuse and self-injecting drug use such as HIV and hepatitis.

Creation of the Alaska Opioid Policy Task Force is a high-level recognition that our state has a problem that needs greater attention. Let’s hope the attention is sustained.

Additional information about the task force and the impact of opioid abuse is available online at dhss.alaska.gov       /AKOpioidTaskForce/), Facebook, and on Twitter at twitter.com/AKOpioidPolicy.

The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at newsminer.com. Contact the editor with questions at letters@newsminer.com or call 459-7574.

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Guidelines

The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at newsminer.com. Contact the editor with questions at letters@newsminer.com or call 459-7574.

Community Perspective

Send Community Perspective submissions by mail (P.O. Box 70710, Fairbanks AK 99707) or via email (letters@newsminer.com). Submissions must be 500 to 750 words. Columns are welcome on a wide range of issues and should be well-written and well-researched with attribution of sources. Include a full name, email address, daytime telephone number and headshot photograph suitable for publication (email jpg or tiff files at 150 dpi.) You may also schedule a photo to be taken at the News-Miner office. The News-Miner reserves the right to edit submissions or to reject those of poor quality or taste without consulting the writer.

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