By Mark Powell
Working Together to Save Lives
For over a decade now, eastern Iowa has struggled with a serious heroin problem. As the purity of the drugs increased, so did the loss of life. In 2015, there were 25 overdose deaths in Cedar Rapids alone. Authorities recognized that there were significant challenges to combating the increased number of heroin overdoses and fatalities.
Things changed with a summit in Iowa City that year. “It was the first time they brought different sectors together to look at the problem,” says Pat Reinert, Assistant Attorney for the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Iowa. “Those sectors often don’t talk to each other. But when they did, police more and more realized, ‘we can’t arrest our way out of the problem.’ They found they needed the community and partners to bring about meaningful change.” The Eastern Iowa Heroin Initiative was created shortly thereafter.
The Initiative is a partnership among the Cedar Rapids Police Department, United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Iowa, and Midwest HIDTA (the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas section). It’s one of only two jurisdictions to receive HIDTA funding, which typically goes to law enforcement alone. Its focus is on enforcement, treatment, and prevention. Officer Lindsay Powers is the current Eastern Iowa Heroin Initiative Coordinator.
“We rolled up our sleeves and got to work,” Reinert continues. And there was much work to be done. Overdose numbers kept rising in 201617 largely due to the influx of fentanyl.
“Iowa is a complex state from an addiction standpoint,” explains Reinert. “If you look at a map, you have drugs coming in from many major cities such as Kansas City, the Twin Cities, Chicago and Detroit. Initially, people in rural areas would drive to bigger cities to get street drugs; now they oftentimes use the internet to try to get their drugs. So, it’s no longer a traditional drug trafficking situation. It’s harder to get a handle on.”
So Initiative members spread out, going into communities big and small, providing support, training, and collaborative efforts. Training is made available at town halls and to civic groups, prevention specialists, even jail administrators. Best practices are collected. The initiative was instrumental in helping get drug take-back boxes, an opportunity for citizens to drop off unused, unwanted or expired medications to prevent them from being diverted into the wrong hands. There is now at least one drug take-back box in every Iowa county.
Dozens of cases have been prosecuted in court. On the treatment front, the Initiative is working hard to bring help to folks who need treatment. It’s expanded medicated assisted treatment by making methadone available. The Initiative is also working closely with the Mental Health Access Center of Linn County so that individuals who are experiencing crisis can be directed towards resources for mental health or substance use disorders. The first is scheduled to open in December, with eight more to follow in the state.
From the prevention perspective, the Initiative worked with two local hospitals to develop a safe prescribing plan with the goal of keeping pills off the streets so they don’t get diverted for misuse.
“The Initiative’s ultimate goal,” Officer Lindsay Powers says, “is getting to a place where we all can work together effectively.” Based on the results produced so far, the Initiative is well on the way toward meeting that goal.
Eastern Iowa Heroin Initiative was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.
J. Mark Powell is an author, former network journalist, and veteran communications expert.