Minnesota Struggles With Substance Abuse As Detox Centers Slip Away

By McCarton Ackerman 12/09/13

More than half of Minnesota's centers have been closed over the past two decades despite the state having one of the highest alcohol- and heroin-related death rates in the nation.

Land of 10,000 23 detox centers
Photo via Shutterstock

Minnesota is struggling to cope with its substance abuse problem as half of the detox centers throughout the state have shut down over the last two decades, leaving already overcrowded jails and hospital emergency rooms to pick up the slack. There are only 23 detox centers throughout the state, but Minnesota health care officials believe there is still a desperate need for them. The binge drinking and heroin-related death rates for Minnesotans are among the highest in the country, but jails and ER's are simply unable to handle the long-term treatment or counseling services that chronic addicts need.

“Detox is always full and the emergency rooms are being overrun with intoxicated people,” said Jennifer DeCubellis, assistant administrator for health for Hennepin County. “We need an array of services that simply don’t exist today.” Bed shortages often mean that visibly intoxicated people who aren't suffering from alcohol poisoning or severely injured are turned away. In rural communities, this means that police are often forced to travel hundreds of miles to drop people off at distant detox centers. For an addict suffering from severe alcohol or drug withdrawals, those hours in a car without treatment can be potentially fatal.

“You can’t leave people lying in the snowbank when it’s 10 degrees below zero,” said Matt Westermayer, deputy director of public safety and police for the city of Mankato. “It’s our obligation to help these people, but something has to change.” Hennepin County is now looking at creating a 30-bed “sobering” center for those who need a place to sleep and sober up, but don’t require acute medical care. The facility could potentially save Hennepin $4 million annually, according to county estimates.

But even if the proposal is approved, it’s detox centers that Minnesota desperately needs. The 21-bed Mission Detox Center in Plymouth provides patients with long-term treatment and counseling, which has led to most of them not returning to the center after they first arrive. “There is this myth that people come here to hang out and have meals, and then it’s back to the streets to drink,” said Brian Zirbes, program director at the Mission Detox Center. “This misperception misses the success stories.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.