Family pursues laws that could help prevent overdose deaths
FARGO – Today would have been Josh Nelson’s 22nd birthday.
Instead, it marks four weeks and three days since the 21-year-old was found unresponsive in the bathroom of a Fargo bar. Nelson was taken to the hospital, where doctors declared dead on July 26.
Although authorities are still waiting on final autopsy findings, preliminary toxicology reports confirmed what his family immediately suspected: Nelson overdosed on heroin.
Nelson had struggled with drug use since high school. The once-talented Fargo South High wrestler started on a path of drug use with marijuana, before moving on to prescription drugs and eventually stepping into the world of heroin.
His story is not uncommon, but it is one his family believes is repeating itself more and more in the Fargo-Moorhead area.
“I don’t think people in this community realize how much of it is here and how many young kids are doing it,” said Darcy Nelson, Josh’s stepmother. “I don’t think the prescription pill problem is the issue anymore. It’s moved on to heroin.”
Darcy Nelson and Nelson’s mother, Jenenne Guffey, and father, John Nelson, have embarked on a mission to raise awareness of heroin use here and pursue new laws that could help prevent fatal overdoses.
Nelson’s family is asking lawmakers in North Dakota and Minnesota to pass what is known in other states as medical amnesty, or immunity for heroin. Immunity laws prevent anyone seeking medical help for themselves or another victim of a heroin overdose from being charged.
“These kids are overdosing, they’re not calling 9-1-1 and they’re doing CPR on each other,” Darcy Nelson said. “It’s one of the scariest aspects (of heroin).”
An investigation into Nelson’s death is ongoing, said Fargo police Lt. Joel Vettel.
Nelson’s case isn’t an isolated incident.
In June 2012, 30-year Cody Conner, a Fargo blues guitarist, died of a heroin overdose. Five people face federal criminal charges relating to his death, including 26-year-old Seth Lund, who pleaded guilty to injecting heroin into Conner’s arm.
Cass County prosecutor Tracy Peters said cases involving a fatal overdose are often tried in federal court because heroin often travels across state lines.
Authorities believe the heroin in Connor’s case came to Fargo from Minneapolis.
Several ongoing local and federal investigations have netted drug circles in this area, including Operation Noah’s Ark, in which an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force arrested 30 people believed to have played a part in bringing drugs from the Twin Cities to Fargo, Grand Forks and Williston.
On Tuesday, Fargo and Moorhead police made one of the largest heroin seizure in recent memory when they confiscated 12 grams of the drug, enough for 300 to 500 doses.
The drug is not just showing up on the streets, but also in hospitals. Hospital-treated heroin cases in Minnesota were up 68 percent in 2011 compared with 2010.
In June 2012, five overdoses resulting in two deaths were reported in the St. Cloud, Minn., metro area. Between April and July 2012, nine people were treated for heroin overdoses, one of which was fatal, in Duluth, Minn.
Vettel said his department has seen an increase in heroin use in this area, but officers are trying to stay ahead of the problem. He said the growing popularity of heroin could be the result of it being cheaper while offering a similar high to prescription drugs.
Vettel said the probability of dying from a heroin overdose is “far greater than any other street drug.” Purity levels can vary greatly, which can result in users taking too much, he said.
“They don’t know those purity levels. They’re not as familiar with the drug and ultimately they make a huge mistake and they pay with their lives,” Vettel said.
He said overdoses are likely common, but not necessarily often reported.
“They’re scared to go to the hospital, so they don’t go to the hospital,” Vettel said.
Fear of prosecution
Guffey and Darcy Nelson said eliminating the fear of prosecution after someone reports an overdose or seeks help for someone overdosing could save lives.
North Dakota and Minnesota have similar immunity laws, but only for minors who consume alcohol.
Fargo Police Sgt. Mike Erbes said that while drug overdoses can lead to criminal cases, a minor in consumption does not.
Minnesota’s immunity law went into effect Aug. 1. It grants immunity to the victim and to a minor who seeks medical attention.
Moorhead Police Lt. Tory Jacobson said the law is meant to encourage minors to seek help for what could turn out to be alcohol poisoning.
According to MedicalAmnesty.org, the number of alcohol-related emergency medical calls increases by 51.1 percent where medical amnesty policies are passed.
Although amnesty or immunity laws vary by state, some states, such as New York, explicitly grant immunity to cases of heroin overdose. New York state law prohibits the prosecution of people experiencing a drug overdose or those who help them seek medical care.
Jacobson said because Minnesota does not have an explicit drug immunity law, Moorhead officers responding to a drug-related medical emergency are allowed to use their discretion when deciding if charges are appropriate.
He said immunity seems to work in alcohol and minor cases, but a broad-brush approach to drug cases could cause problems, especially for families of victims who seek justice.
“It’s very subjective and complex and there are many different factors,” he said.
Guffey and Darcy Nelson have already found an ally in Minnesota state Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center. Eaton became an advocate for drug immunity laws after her daughter died from a heroin overdose in 2007. Eaton has said her daughter’s life could have been saved if her friend had not wasted time hiding drug paraphernalia before talking to police.
She plans to introduce an immunity bill in the next legislative session.
Nelson said she and Guffey are seeking a legislator to sponsor a similar bill during the 2015 North Dakota legislative session.
No one is ‘typical”
Nelson was described as a witty and loyal friend; a risk taker who never left home dressed disheveled. He loved sports, tuning every TV in the house to a game or recap.
“He had a very tender soul, just very tender and compassionate,” Guffey said.
“Josh was a very clean-cut, very well-mannered, high maintenance kind of kid,” Darcy Nelson said. “He didn’t look like what people would think stereotype (drug users) do.”
Nelson dropped out of high school and criminal charges relating to drugs stained his record.
“They move through the cycle of opiate addiction starting with prescription drugs, and it just moves on to this bigger monster,” Guffey said.
Despite his troubles, Nelson made some progress. He had plans for his future after completing a rehab program and earning a GED. He planned to marry and have children.
The Sunday before his death, he talked with Guffey about taking courses in construction management. Guffey said Nelson told her he was scrapping his dream of becoming a smoke jumper or firefighter for a career that would allow him to be home with a family he had always intended to have.
Since his Josh’s death, Darcy Nelson and Guffey have been surprised by the many people who have reached out to them to say their lives were also touched by heroin use.
“It’s like our story repeating itself,” Guffey said.
The two women – mother and stepmother to Josh – have bonded over the years of his drug addiction. Now they are bonded in their efforts on his behalf.
“His life has to mean something,” Darcy Nelson said. “If this can help one person, one parent to see the signs, it will mean something.”