Meth is out and heroin is in, according to three metro area sheriffs who said some abusers of prescription painkillers are moving on to heroin to feed their addictions.
Sheriffs Rich Stanek of Hennepin County, Matt Bostrom of Ramsey County and James Stuart of Anoka County held a press conference in Minneapolis Thursday to rally community awareness of heroin use they said is spreading across the Twin Cities.
The evidence that prescription drugs are a gateway to heroin use is anecdotal, but authorities can tabulate the grim consequences of heroin's growing local popularity.
- In Hennepin County, Stanek said, 21 people died in heroin-related deaths last year—twice the number from 2009 and four times as many as 2008.
- In Ramsey County, Bostrom said, heroin-related deaths rose from "maybe zero" in 2009 to 12 last year.
- In Anoka County, Stuart said, there were two deaths related to heroin in 2008; last year there were 13 deaths and officials tallied 55 overdose incidents. (Area hospitals now are at the ready for overdose patients, he said.)
Compounding the danger is that heroin sold locally is of 93.5 percent purity, Stanek said—among the most pure in the nation.
Not the Heroin Problem of Your Father's Era
The current trend is different from the heroin problems of earlier generations, the sheriffs said. People still most often inject it, but alternatives such as snorting and smoking heroin carry less stigma.
The drug also now comes in forms other than white powder. "We don't see much 'China White', Stanek said. "That's the old way of doing business." Heroin may be sold as golf ball-sized black rocks or in candy-like packages.
And gram for gram, it's cheaper than the prescription drugs that deliver a similar high. A key new route to heroin abuse, Stanek said, is getting hooked on opiates in prescription painkillers—often starting with leftover pills found in home medicine cabinets. Once the pills run out, addicts seek out heroin as a replacement.
The sheriffs urged citizens to dispose of unused prescription drugs at drop-off boxes available in each county.
Heroin in the Suburbs
"Parents say, 'I just can't believe a suburban kid' [like theirs]'" could get addicted to heroin, Stanek said. But aside from being more prevalent in population centers, the sheriffs said the problem affects all areas of their counties—suburban, urban and rural. (A Fox9 report last November detailed the spread of heroin into the suburbs from a young addict's point of view.)
The profile of a local heroin addict is "across the board," Stuart said, though in Anoka County they tend to be white males in their late teens or early 20s.
Treatment exists but there's not enough of it, the sheriffs said. "You got enough treatment options in Anoka County?" Stanek asked Stuart. "No," the Anoka County sheriff replied.
Where their departments see the failure of addicts to quit is in recidivism—the same people getting arrested again and still on heroin, Stuart said in an interview after the press conference.
Seventy percent of inmates in Hennepin County's jail are under the influence of narcotics when booked, Stanek said.
Meth Model to Fight Back
Bostrom called for a "holistic effort" to combat heroin, similar to community and state response to the methamphetamine scourge. (That included new state laws restricting the sale of over-the-counter drugs used to make meth, noted Stanek, a former legislator.)
"We've had success combatting meth," Bostrom said. "If we don't do something now, we know what's going to happen."