Star Tribune Editor: Synthetic-drug dangers are under our spotlight

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 14, 2012 - 5:09 PM

We've made educational videos that schools can show their students.

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Jesse Fisher, 17, survived a Synthetic drug overdose at a party in Blaine in March 2011 that killed one man Trevor Robinson, 19.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Ever since that day last spring when a group of Minnesota teenagers and young adults overdosed on a synthetic substance none of us had ever heard of, this news organization has focused on understanding a new wave of drugs with the hopes of preventing other overdoses and deaths.

Our reporting has taken us from the Twin Cities suburb of Blaine to a small town in Oklahoma to national drug labs in Washington, D.C. It has revealed how deceptively dangerous these synthetic drugs are, why they are so readily available, who is profiting from their sale, and how difficult it is to crack down on dealers.

We've enlisted the help of local labs, drug experts and forensic computer sleuths to help us with our reporting.

Along with our readers, our journalists have learned that these drugs, from synthetic marijuana to bath salts and other substances, have taken over communities with unprecedented speed, leaving law enforcement officials, health officials and parents ill-equipped to respond.

We're proud of this body of work, which can now be found online at www.startribune.com/lethaldose.

At the same time, we've come to the sobering realization that neither local nor national law enforcement officials will be able to keep this problem in check without broad and sustained educational efforts.

For that reason, we are making educational videos with excerpts from some of our reporting available to schools across the state of Minnesota.

We paid a vendor to manufacture 350 DVDs containing two videos -- each of about five minutes long -- warning about the dangers of synthetic drugs. One of those videos featured powerful, firsthand accounts from four teenagers who watched a friend overdose on synthetic drugs at the house party in Blaine.

Their friend died from the experience. These young people decided to publicly share their memories of what happened that night in March 2011, and what they learned from the experience, with the hope that others would learn from this tragic event.

The other video featured interviews with Dan Moren, the Drug Enforcement Administration's top representative in Minnesota, and Cody Wiberg, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy, discussing the growing problems caused by synthetic drugs and explaining what these substances are and how they affect the body.

This week, we distributed 257 DVDs to high schools. Most of them arrived on Wednesday, when they were delivered with the newspapers we bring to 217 schools as part of our Newspapers in Education program.

We also mailed out copies of the DVD to every large high school in the state, typically those with more than 1,000 students.

To raise awareness of this project and make sure that the appropriate people in these schools and others knew what we were doing, we worked with the Minnesota School Counselors Association, which sent out an e-mail blast to 733 members last Monday, inviting counselors to request the video.

Within minutes of delivery, we started hearing back from school counselors, with one asking for as many as 10 copies of the DVD. At the same time, the counselors wrote us about their own struggles with synthetic-drug use at their schools.

They cited many of the reasons we have already identified: The drugs often don't show up on urinalysis tests; they are incredibly easy to acquire, and students mistakenly think that synthetic drugs are safe because many are technically legal.

Clearly, this is a battle that will be fought in the trenches for some time to come.

We urge parents to talk to their teenagers about the scourge of synthetic drugs. And we'd like to invite other organizations to make broad use of our reporting that is already available online; we will gladly make our DVD available to any other organization that might have need of it for education purposes.

Simply write us at 425 Portland Avenue, Minneapolis MN, 55488, or e-mail nancyb@startribune.com.

Finally, we'd like to say thank you to the young adults who worked with us on this project. Hopefully, their willingness to speak out will help save a life.

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Nancy Barnes is the Star Tribune's editor. Investigations Editor Jeff Meitrodt contributed to this column.

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