A mother who lost her son to opioid addiction founded a nonprofit that has educated 50,000 students, parents, and teachers on the dangers of opioids.
Colleen Ronnei joined Liz Collin for an episode of Liz Collin Reports this week to share the story of her son’s death and her mission to stop others like it.
Luke Ronnei struggled with mental health issues his whole life, Ronnei said, but he received great care and counseling. His anxiety worsened in high school and was coupled with depression. When he was prescribed opioids after getting his wisdom teeth out, it was a quick downward spiral into an addiction he hid well, his mother said.
“I was nowhere near educated about how quickly opioids can impact the brain and how highly addictive they are … and it only takes three to five days for the brain to start changing when you are consuming that particular substance,” Ronnei said.
Luke went to college and soon reached out to his brother when he knew he needed help. Ronnei wanted to do everything she could to help him.
“He was ashamed of the fact that all the things we were doing weren’t helping him enough. He still couldn’t stop using heroin … it was scary,” she said.
Luke’s drug dealer, Beverly Burrell, is now in prison for selling drugs to five men who died of overdoses.
There were 654 opioid deaths in Minnesota in 2020, a 60% increase from 2019. Dealers in Minnesota can make three to four times as much money than they would on the streets of Chicago, said a Duluth police officer, according to an Alpha News report.
People who are involved in selling a controlled substance that results in the death of another person can be “held accountable for third-degree murder,” according to Kim Maki, St. Louis County attorney.
Burrell was found guilty of third-degree murder and sentenced to 23 years in June 2019. She is scheduled to be released in 2031.
Ronnei is passionate about helping people who have a substance abuse disorder while incarcerating those who sell opioids as a business, “not as a recreational thing or because they are sick with substance abuse disorder.”
“We need to help people who have this disease, and we need to incarcerate people who are selling drugs simply as a business entity,” she said.
Ronnei started a nonprofit that educates young people about the dangers of opioid addiction. Change the Outcome has spoken to over 50,000 people since its inception in July 2017, traveling to schools and presenting its educational programs.
“Every attendee will be armed with practical knowledge that can save a life, prevent substance use disorder, and actively address the opioid epidemic in simple but meaningful ways,” reads the organization’s mission statement.
Ronnei noted that drug awareness changes all the time, “so to expect health teachers to be able to implement [new information] into their health curriculum is just nearly impossible.”
Change the Outcome is in a great position to combat the use of outdated information in schools, she said. The nonprofit received funding from the Opioid Epidemic Response Advisory Council six years to the day of Luke’s death.
“I know that Luke struggled, and maybe if some of the stigma and the shame and the misunderstanding around this disease wasn’t so intense back then, maybe he could have navigated his recovery more successfully,” Ronnei said.
Ronnei is working to get legislation passed that would encourage schools to have drug overdose reversal medication, called Narcan, on hand — since students have overdosed at schools that do not have emergency medication nearby that could have saved lives.
“We don’t have an epidemic of arsonists or people going into anaphylactic shock or having heart attacks, but we have all those tools in schools at a great cost. Narcan is not expensive,” Ronnei said.
There are 333 school districts in the state, and 12 of them currently have Narcan in their buildings, she said.
“Schools think that there will be some perceived stain on their district if they have that in their buildings. But I can tell you that it’s not as big a stain as having a student who dies in your building because you didn’t have a $15 medication to reverse an overdose,” Ronnei said.