Deaths rise as region flooded with cheap, strong heroin

Heroin wrapped to look like candy
Heroin confiscated in Hennepin County was wrapped in small twists to look like candy. It's packaged to appeal to new users, and the small amounts for sale means it is cheap to buy -- which also appeals to young customers.
Hennepin County Sheriff's Office

The number of people dying from heroin overdoses rose again last year in Hennepin County, making 2013 the deadliest on record for heroin-related deaths in the state's most populous county.

Sheriff Rich Stanek said 54 people died in Hennepin County in 2013 from heroin overdoses. That's up from just eight heroin-related deaths in the county in 2010.

"Over the last three years we've seen an exponential increase of both opiate abuse as well as heroin abuse," Stanek said. "Usually it seems like folks are getting addicted to prescription painkillers, which are opiate based, and when they can no longer get a supply of prescription painkillers, some of them turn to heroin."

Hennepin County's numbers echo the situation in other counties across the state, as the region has been flooded with cheap, strong heroin. Carol Falkowski, Minnesota's former drug abuse strategy officer who now works for the organization Drug Dialogues, said the numbers available across the state for the first half of 2013 show that opiates, including heroin, continue to be a growing problem in the region.

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"We have continued to see increases with heroin in terms of not only overdose deaths, but people coming into addiction treatment programs, people coming into hospital rooms and seizures by law enforcement," Falkowski said. "Every indicator that we look at has still been on the upswing for the last several years with no sign of turning around or even slowing down."

What public health advocates have termed an opiate "epidemic" is reaching many major cities in the country, according to a report compiled by Falkowski last month.

"For me, with the long term perspective I have on this, it was really reminiscent of what we saw with crack-cocaine in the 1980s," Falkowski said.

About 64 percent of those admitted to addiction treatment programs for heroin in the first half of last year were white, according to Falkowski's research. In Hennepin County, the vast majority of those who died of overdoses in the first half of 2013 were in their 20s.

Washington County Attorney Peter Orput said the epidemic cuts across all social and economic lines in his county.

"The stigma against heroin, which was awful when I was a kid, well, now it's become far cheaper, far more ubiquitous -- it's apparently everywhere," Orput said. "It doesn't have that negative stigma that it used to."

Orput's office and other law enforcement agencies in the east Twin Cities metro have been working together to better prosecute drug distributors. "There's nothing worse then getting a call in the middle of the night that the police found a dead body, and I head out there and learn that it was a drug overdose," Orput said. "Some of the time we can catch the person who distributed, and some of the time we can't."

Law enforcement and public health advocates at agencies across the state have aggressively sought to educate the public about the dangers of opiates. In Hennepin County, the sheriff's office has helped organize public health events and tried to reach out to young people on social media. Stanek said attempts to spread awareness have "had a somewhat limited effect."

"From a law enforcement aspect, [our job] is fairly easy, we know what we do, we enforce," Stanek said. "But that's not the sole answer in this case, which is why the sheriffs in the state have done not only enforcement but also public education and public policy advocacy."

Stanek is supporting a bill that would allow emergency responders to carry and administer a drug called Narcan that reverses opiate overdoses.

"These are preventable deaths, every single time that someone overdoses on a prescription drug or heroin overdose, it's preventable," Stanek said. "The collateral damage that comes from that in terms of family, economy, work, relationships is just incredible."

The bill will be carried by DFL state Sen. Chris Eaton of Brooklyn Center, who lost a daughter to a heroin overdose in 2007.