FARGO - As the number of people addicted to opioids grows, five metro-area mayors have joined forces with lawmakers, health care providers and others to combat the epidemic.

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said Monday, Sept. 26, that the new Blue Ribbon Commission on Addiction he formed with the mayors of Moorhead, West Fargo, Dilworth and Horace will include a large range of stakeholders from schools to insurance companies to police departments.

"We need to attack this strongly," he said. "The mayors are all enthusiastic about this."

The alarm was triggered earlier this year when a wave of powerful opioids, such as heroin and fentanyl, swept through Fargo-Moorhead leaving about a dozen dead and many more hospitalized after overdosing. Police began warning drug users and educators sponsored events, "Eyes Wide Open" among them, to raise awareness.

Mahoney said the blue ribbon commission came out of informal discussions he had with different mayors at such events, especially West Fargo Mayor Rich Mattern.

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"We just said, 'Rich and I had gone to enough panels - Eyes Wide Open - we gotta do some action items rather than just have a discussion," Mahoney said. "We think the community is aware of it. Now we need to talk about action."

Unlike past efforts across the country to combat illegal drugs, many seem to agree this one will need to emphasize treatment for addicts, not punishment.

In a statement, Mattern said, "It's obvious that we can't arrest our way out of this this problem, so we need to work on other solutions in a unified effort."

John Vastag, who will coordinate the commission's work, said the commission will start with a steering committee of 25 to 30 members and three expert panels, each focused on prevention, treatment and recovery. There may be other panels, such as law enforcement, he said.

The steering committee has scheduled its first meeting Wednesday, Oct. 12, Vastag said. The expert panels will begin meeting a week or two after, with the goal of putting together recommendations for review by the steering committee in the first week of December. The commission's work should be complete before the North Dakota legislative session begins Jan. 3.

Vastag, CEO of the nonprofit group Interagency Program For Assistive Technology, was hired with funding from the Dakota Medical Foundation.

Fargo City Commissioner John Strand, who ran on a platform that included combatting drug addiction, said he's pleased the foundation is playing a role in the effort as well as United Way. "They have so much wherewithal, I think it's really speeding along the community effort."