Seventeen years ago, alcohol and cocaine nearly cost Randy Anderson his life.
Now he has become a one-man sober crusader, traveling up to 1,200 miles a month to meet with law enforcement, social workers, and family and friends of loved ones in the grips of opioid abuse.
His mission is partly to comfort and counsel them with stories of his own struggles, but also to give them lifesaving kits with doses of Narcan, the powerful chemical that can revive people on the verge of dying from an overdose.
It can be a gift and a burden for family and loved ones, he said, arming them with a nasal spray that can rescue someone from an overdose before emergency personnel arrive.
To date, he has handed out 12,469 kits across the state's 87 counties. Each kit comes with the same hope, Anderson said, that maybe this overdose will be the last, that the victim will find a path to sobriety.
"I had a friend who overdosed 17 times and 14 times he was saved from Narcan," said Anderson, 51. "I don't care how many times it takes. He has been sober for four years."
So Anderson travels the state, going from town to town, meeting with front-line emergency personnel, legislators and small groups, trying to coax addicts into recovery or, failing that, arming their friends and family with Narcan.
Shelly Elkington asked for Anderson's training for her small city of Montevideo, in western Minnesota. His strength was breaking down the stigma of drug use, she said.
"I've never met somebody so true to life," she said. "I lost a daughter to opioid addiction in 2015 and he was there to scoop me up. He's unlike anybody I know. People in my town know I'm the person who has Narcan."
Narcan has become less controversial as the drug has become more widely available, reviving more than 10,000 people a year nationally, according to recent studies. But to the remaining critics, Anderson has a ready-made answer: "If you had a loved one, what would you do?" he asked. "You would want them to be alive."
Julie Bauch, Hennepin County's opioid response coordinator, attended one of Anderson's trainings four years ago.
"I don't see any downside to his Narcan training, and he is somebody we refer people to for training," she said. "It's kind of a miracle drug."
Drug overdose deaths have reached epidemic levels in Minnesota, with 1,008 deaths in 2020, a 27% increase from the year before. But opioid-related deaths rose to 654 for the year, up 59% from 2019, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Anderson got his first glimpse of the addiction that would grab hold of his life at a young age. He found some booze at a graduation party at 14 when his parents left him alone. He realized he didn't have the control to say "no" like his friends.
He routinely got blackout drunk in high school. Then came the cocaine, paid for with money from a gutter installation business.
U.S. marshals picked him up in his Ford Ranger on his way to breakfast at McDonald's. Authorities found a kilo of cocaine and 40 ounces of crack cocaine in his Hopkins condo. He spent five years in Waseca federal jail.
After prison, he took his newfound drive for a life of sobriety and advocacy and earned a degree to help people who suffered from chemical dependency.
"Randy is best at telling his life experience," said state Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, who worked with Anderson on an opioid prevention measure in 2019. "He's a crusader. At the end of day, he's like, 'I'm Randy Anderson.' He'd rather shake everybody's hand in the room, look them in the eye and get people to share their own stories. He is authentic."
Even though he is sober, the ravages of addiction continue to haunt his life. Since November, his sister, a nurse, and biological mother died from substance use. His stepfather died from a fentanyl overdose five weeks ago.
The deaths caused Anderson to take a brief pause from his business, Bold North Recovery and Consulting, but the tragedy of his family has only strengthened his resolve.
"It keeps me going," he said. "I don't want anybody to go through what I've had to go through."
Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson hired Anderson to present monthly classes on the use of Narcan and the staggering statistics about the record number of opioid deaths in Minnesota. Hutchinson said Anderson presented the information casually, not wanting to spook the people who had signed up for the class.
Anderson, a member of the sheriff's office community advisory board, comes at the opioid epidemic in a fair and compassionate way, Hutchinson said
Nobody in the state is a better addiction counselor, he said.
"He is the poster child in dealing with addiction," the sheriff said. "I respect him so much. He's just a good dude, point blank."
Anderson has also gotten involved in trying to pass legislation at the Minnesota Capitol dealing with opioid addiction.
Hoffman said Anderson could bring people out of their shells at the State Capitol to testify about relatives struggling with drug addiction. He would bring legislators around to vote on potential, big-ticket drug bills.
"He wasn't paid by big advocates to lobby," Hoffman said. "His story was sincere and authentic. At the end of the day, it wasn't about him."
In 2019, he helped shape a bipartisan opioid measure that has sent millions of dollars to fight the epidemic.
"If I can reach one person through training or changing a law ... It's a new adventure every day," he said. "I wake up excited to tell my story. Who is going to be reached today? You just don't know."
David Chanen • 612-673-4465