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Updated: SMS event focuses on drug abuse trends, treatment

For the third year in a row, local experts will offer up-to-date information on drug addiction in Douglas County. Participants will learn about treatment options, signs of abuse, which drugs are most prevalent in the area and what help is available to those struggling with addiction and their loved ones.

"I think the community needs to stay current on what's happening," said Shelley Faul of Solon Springs, a member of the AODA Community Coalition of Douglas County.

The Community Drug Addiction Awareness event runs 5:30-8:30 p.m. Monday at Superior Middle School. It includes free food, speakers, local resource tables and more.

The evening opens and closes with a chance to walk through a room of secrets. Participants 18 and older can search for signs of substance abuse in two different mock bedrooms. The suspect items include drug paraphernalia and everyday objects that can hide a drug stash.

Superior Police Chief Nicholas Alexander and Betsy Byler, director of outpatient behavioral health and substance abuse services for Lake Superior Community Health Center, are slated to speak. Those who attend will also hear from former addict Brian Cole, who began selling drugs at age 12 and spent 27 years in the prison system. He is now director of addiction transformation at Crossroads Outreach Center in Ashland.

"His story is so unusual and his success in his recovery is wonderful," Faul said. "It inspired me. He gives me hope, and he can give others hope."

The Solon Springs woman, whose son is serving a prison sentence for property crimes stemming from his methamphetamine addiction, will share her story.

"I hid it for years," Faul said. "I still get nervous getting up there, speaking about it. I also know how important it is for other people to know they're not alone."

She's been a vocal advocate for increased treatment options in Douglas County and a statewide increase in BadgerCare rates.

"I wanted to try to be part of making the community better so when my son came home, he would have support," Faul said. "That's where my passion came from."

Meeting others along the way has expanded her vision. She and other members of the coalition are creating an information packet and pamphlet to provide a list of people to call for those seeking help with substance abuse.

"I know that an average citizen doesn't really know what to do," Byler said, and it's often a difficult path to navigate. By providing the numbers, she said, the group hopes that a cry for help doesn't stop with one phone call.

Dr. Mark Lim, medical director for NorthLakes Community Clinic's recovery program, is another new speaker.

"Hearing him speak changed my understanding of what happens in your brain when you're addicted and when you stopped," said Barb Certa-Werner, coalition member and pastor of Faith United Methodist Church. "It made me more compassionate."

Drug abuse is a nationwide problem, and Douglas County is no exception. Naloxone, a medication that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose, was administered to Douglas County patients 23 times in 2015, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the most recent figures available.

Faith United Methodist Church offers a food pantry every Tuesday. One week, Certa-Werner said, food pantry volunteers had to respond to an overdose. The church now keeps nasal naloxone on hand, just in case.

"Some people come in high," Certa-Werner said. "We don't want them to die."

Naloxone is also stocked at Harbor House Crisis Shelters in Superior.

The number of heroin cases sent to the state crime lab from Douglas County has remained high for years — 45 cases in 2013, 33 in 2014 and 24 in 2015. Despite the nationwide emphasis on heroin, methamphetamine cases in Douglas County are consistently higher. The county led the state in methamphetamine submissions to the crime lab in 2014 with 127. Douglas County dropped to second place in 2015 with 79 (topped by Polk County with 124 cases) and to 69 methamphetamine cases in 2016, according to the Wisconsin Department of Justice.

But the numbers don't tell the whole story.

"There are changes being made, positive changes," Faul said.

Lake Superior Community Health Center is partnering with NorthLakes, which has clinics in Iron River and Ashland, on a grant to expand local opioid and methamphetamine treatment in Douglas County. Byler said that will include medication-assisted treatment for opioid abuse, with priority given to pregnant women and IV drug users.

The center integrates substance abuse services with medical, dental and behavioral health services.

"We're trying to help in a more holistic way, rebuilding, or building, a life that is worth living sober," Byler said.

Everyone is invited to attend the event designed to raise awareness and provide a place to reach out for help.

"You hear on the TV there's an epidemic. It's affecting communities, our nation, millions of people every day," Faul said. "It still surprises me how alone and isolated one can feel when it's in your family."

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