FARGO - "We don't want to jail our way out of this," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said repeatedly as she praised city commissioners Monday, Aug. 1, for their approach to combating opiate addiction.

And she said there may be federal dollars available to help, offering her office's services to help communities in the region write more effective grant requests.

Opiate addiction is a topic of special concern for the senator and her visit comes as the city begins work on a comprehensive plan to battle a sharp rise in the number of opiate overdoses that has killed several young people.

Making a plan

So far, the response has been urgent - police have issued warnings about tainted drugs and firefighters are now equipped with opiate antidotes - but not as coordinated as city officials would like.

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Ruth Roman, director of Fargo-Cass Public Health, told commissioners her department has hired a staff member dedicated to opiate addiction. It's also working on a plan that will encompass teaching young people about the dangers and talking with doctors about how they prescribe opiate painkillers, she said.

Next month, she said, her department will visit with an Arizona-based group that runs a Minot clinic treating opiate addiction with methadone.

Heitkamp applauded the public-health approach, which doesn't treat addicts as criminals, but said police are still needed to deter drug dealers.

She said there are federal dollars available to help as part of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which included language she authored. But North Dakota communities will have to compete with Appalachian and New England states more ravaged by opiates, she said.

The senator said she'd like to see Congress make more money available for local governments. She said she and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., are co-sponsors of a bill from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., to tax each milligram of prescription opiate 1 cent.

Congress has not voted on the bill.

Loving addicts

But as important as resources are, several speakers who joined Heitkamp said it's also important to destigmatize opiate addiction to encourage addicts and their family to seek help.

Nikki Anderson, whose son Luke died of an overdose in March, told commissioners that after she spoke in public about his death, many parents of addicts thanked her, saying they've lived in the shadow of shame and embarrassment. "I hope for acceptance and love and compassion for the addicts and their families."

Addiction doesn't mean someone is weak and can't take care of themselves, said Dr. John Baird, Fargo-Cass Public Health's health officer and coroner. Addiction is an illness, he said.