Jeff Larson doesn’t look, talk or act like a former meth user and dealer. He worked as a nuclear engineer on a Navy submarine off the coast until he was offered a full-ride scholarship to any college of his choice. He chose the University of San Diego, where he studied political science, history and business. Other colleges like George Washington University and Pepperdine were calling him, too, but he liked the weather in San Diego. After his stint with the Navy, he was hired to work as a salesman for Lifetime Fitness.
Larson started doing meth when he was 27 — just when his career as a businessman was taking off. A friend offered the drug to him.
He was hooked.
A few years later, when he decided he wanted to be able to get his drugs for free, he started selling.
Larson didn’t sell meth because he needed the money, he said. He sold because he knew he could get the expensive drug for free. And he was a businessman, so he was a sucker for good deals.
“Nobody around me knew (I was an addict),” Larson said.
Hope on the horizon
The spiral of addiction swept Larson off his feet for two decades. Exactly 20 years after Larson first tried meth, on June 18, 2016, a member of the Mystic Lake hotel’s cleaning staff found drug paraphernalia in Larson’s room and reported it to Mystic Lake security, who called Prior Lake police. When officers found Larson on the gaming floor of the casino, he admitted to having meth in his bag and another half ounce of the drug in his hotel room, according to the criminal complaint filed in Scott County District Court. He also admitted to having syringes and bottles of GHB, a central nervous system depressant.
Larson said getting caught was the best thing to ever happen to him.
He was sentenced to a year in Scott County Jail, but said he shaved his time down to six months because he worked in the kitchen. He read 60 books during that time — 10 each month. His favorites were "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck and "In the Beauty of the Lilies" by John Updike.
And as soon as he was released, he knew he needed to seek help before the spiral of addiction swept him up once again.
Larson was required to seek treatment after his release, so he flocked to Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge in Duluth, where the first three months of his treatment were state-funded. But he knew he needed more than three months of treatment to kick his 20-year addiction. That’s when he heard about Shakopee’s recovery assistance program, or RAP.
The RAP, which started three years ago, is the first of its kind in the country. Shakopee police use money obtained from asset forfeiture — like the $12,000 in drug money seized from Larson when he was arrested — and offers scholarships up to the addict’s deductible for people in the community who display financial need and a desire to change.
And Larson was the poster child for change.
Larson applied for the program, not knowing how else he’d pay for the nine months of intensive, live-in treatment he knew he needed. The police department granted him $3,000 to attend Teen Challenge for another three months. Then he applied again, and he was granted another $3,000.
Now, he’s three years and two months sober and works at a meat market in Duluth, where he makes a little more than $12 an hour.
“It’s the lowliest job I’ve ever had,” Larson said. “But I’m so happy.”
Larson drives from Duluth to Scandia at least once a week to visit his father, who lives on a farm. He has a job offer on the table from Teen Challenge, and he said he just might take it.
‘We can’t arrest our way out of this’
Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate said Larson is an example of just one life that has been transformed by the recovery assistance program. He said there used to be a lot of emphasis on the “Angel” program on the East Coast, where drug addicts can go to treatment instead of jail.
“Looking at their success rate, it wasn’t where we wanted to focus our resources,” Tate said. “I didn’t want to give out get-out-of-jail-free cards to people.” But he also knew the police department can’t arrest its way out of addiction, either. The recovery assistance program is a happy medium, and it helps create engagement instead of fear between Tate and addicts in the area.
Shakopee partners with five treatment centers in Minnesota: North Star Recovery, Haven, Sage Prairie, Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge and River Ridge. The police department gives the scholarship money directly to the treatment center. The majority of that money comes from asset forfeiture, but grant money and donations also keep the program running. Tate said the police department has recently started to work with a local taxi company to fund transportation for one applicant to get to treatment, since he doesn’t have his license.
“Gosh, if we’re talking $300 in ride fees between someone getting treatment and not, that’s $300 well spent,” Tate said.
And other cities are starting to take notice. Rochester and Eden Prairie have recently started similar programs after witnessing Shakopee’s success.
Marcus Blue, the director of operations at Sage Prairie treatment center, said he’s seen about a dozen RAP applicants go through his facility, and most of them start to cry when he tells them there’s a program available that can pay for most of their treatment. He said $5,000 is a small price to pay to get a life back on track, but that kind of bill can be debilitating for families who don’t have enough money tucked away to afford it, even when Sage Prairie offers long-term payment plans.
“Before this program, there was never any follow through,” Tate said. “Not everyone wants to be friends with a cop. (This way), we’re able to monitor them, respect their privacy and hope they let us celebrate their successes.”
And it has been a success. Out of the 40 applicants who have gone through the RAP, only one of them has been arrested post-treatment.
“And we knew we weren’t going to bat 1,000 on this,” Tate said. “But people want to get better.”
Barb Hedstrom, the Shakopee Victim and Community Services Coordinator, helps run the recovery assistance program. She said the city has received little backlash and plenty of support, because it makes a lot of sense for most people to help the same people the money was taken from.
“I believe any time you can help a single person, it has a ripple effect in their community,” Hedstrom said. “It’s important for families to have hope.”
Tate said still gets coffee and burgers with many of the RAP applicants, and he’s been used as a job reference twice by one of the applicants.
“I’d call that a success,” he said.
Anyone, regardless of their addiction, who wants to learn more about the RAP can call or stop by the police department, Tate said.