Heroin-related deaths on the rise

Law enforcement in multiple counties work to stop the drug

BY KATY ZILLMER

katy.zillmer@ecm-inc.com

Heroin use in Minnesota is a suburban, urban and rural problem, according to Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek. And with a report from the Hennepin County Medical Examiner that there were 21 heroin-related deaths in 2011 compared to eight in 2010, Stanek said the law enforcement community is stepping up to cut the drug off at its source and educate the public about how dangerous it is.

Anoka and Ramsey counties are seeing similar trends in heroin use to Hennepin County. Among the three counties there were 16 total heroin-related deaths in 2010. In 2011, there were 46 total deaths among the three counties.

"We don’t want to see heroin claim more lives and we don’t want another year with huge numbers like that," Stanek said.

However, Stanek said he is not optimistic based on data and trends in 2012.

"So far in 2012, there are signs that the heroin problem is persisting, in fact maybe even growing in terms of abuse and overdoses across the metropolitan area," he said. "(In) the first three months of 2012, if you compare to the first three months of 2011, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office is already on track to surpass the amount of heroin seized during investigations for the year."

Stanek, along with Ramsey County Sheriff Matt Bostrom and Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart, discussed causes for the trends at a news conference last week: prescription drug abuse and the potency of heroin in Minnesota.

Stanek said prescription painkillers, such as vicodin, are addictive if abused and both those drugs and heroin are opiates. If an addict no longer has access to prescription painkillers, they will often start injecting or smoking heroin. It’s easier to get, and it’s cheaper, Stanek said.

And, drug dealers have been selling heroin in Minnesota that is 93.5 percent pure – which makes it more addictive.

"A heroin user in the Twin Cities has a greater change of accidental overdose because the purity of that heroin is so high," Stanek said.

STOPPING THE SOURCE

In Anoka County, Stuart said law enforcement has been tracking heroin use since 2008. In the end of that year, there were two heroin-related deaths and there were seven in 2009, Stuart said. "In 2010 there were nine heroin overdoses where the victim survived and five additional overdoses resulting in deaths.

We’re here to say, ‘no more, not in our communities.’ It’s our position that this cannot be tolerated any longer," he said.

Both Stanek and Bostrom equated the recent trends in heroin use and deaths to the late 1990s when methamphetamine was more prevalent in Minnesota.

"The concern from my vantage point is we’re seeing some similar things on the front end of the heroin trends," Bostrom said. "If we don’t do something now we could end up having a similar issue with heroin that we had with meth."

Law enforcement has already made one step to prevent heroin addiction through its collection of expired or unused prescription drugs – which Stanek said are a precursor to heroin use.

During two weeks of a prescription "take back" program at the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility in Minneapolis, Stanek said they collected about 150 pounds of prescription narcotics.

"This program addresses the vital public safety and public health issue. More than seven million Americans abuse prescription drugs according to the 2009 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration national survey on drug use," Stanek said.

WARNING SIGNS

While law enforcement from Anoka, Ramsey and Hennepin counties and across the state work to arrest drug dealers and to try to stop the movement of heroin from the southern border, they stress it is important for parents and educators to talk to youths about the dangers of the drug.

According to Partnership for Drug Free America, Stanek said, each day approximately 2,500 teens use prescription drugs to get high for the first time.

"Please don’t assume that the youth in your life know better or would never do that," he said.

Warning signs include youths becoming more reclusive, because heroin and prescription painkillers are sedatives, having mood swings and poor hygiene and even committing crimes such as shoplifting.

On a larger scale, the Anoka, Ramsey and Hennepin sheriffs are working with law enforcement across the state and country to keep heroin from crossing the border.

"The vast majority of heroin comes from the southern border," Stanek said. "We’re not immune to that, we’re part of that. Our job is cut out for us. Our job is to stop the supply," he said.

And, Bostrom said, law enforcement work with the court system and public health professionals to try to help addicts they arrest for committing a crime get treatment.

"I think the courts and the prosecutors are supportive of these efforts because part of our response isn’t so much how many people you arrest, it’s how many people (you) won’t see in the system again," Bostrom said. "We’re trying to be intentional in our role and not look at it just as law enforcement."

Info: hennepin.us/medicine, 612-348-3777 about prescription drug collection.

Drop boxes for prescription drugs are located at Hennepin County Sheriff’s Patrol Headquarters, 9401 83rd Ave. N., Brooklyn Park and at the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility, 401 Fourth Ave. S., Minneapolis.

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