Heroin's growing suburban damage lamented at Anoka County forum

Tom Lucas with a picture of his son
Tom Lucas' 20-year-old son Joey died of a heroin overdose in 2006. He showed a photo of his son at a younger age.
Jon Collins/MPR News

Tanner James Pap, a native of Lino Lakes, died of a heroin overdose in his Minneapolis apartment in November 2012.

On Thursday, his mother, Val Pap, told a packed church in Spring Lake Park that no one in the family even knew the 21-year-old was using drugs like heroin; that "this was not something that my bright, charismatic, well-adjusted, all-American boy would do."

"My image of it was of a filthy, dark-alley addict, skid row bum, something that nobody in my little world would ever have anything to do with," she told the crowd of about 250 at Eagle Brook Church. "As it turns out, I was sorely mistaken."

The heroin epidemic has hit suburban areas in Minnesota as hard as urban communities. In Anoka in 2013, eight people died of heroin overdoses, up from two deaths in the county in 2008. Many more overdosed but recovered, county authorities said.

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This was the third and final community forum that Anoka County authorities organized to educate the public on the dangers of opiate abuse.

Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo said abuse of heroin, which is an opiate, often starts with legal prescription opiates that are prescribed by doctors.

"One of the reasons [for opiate abuse] in the suburbs sometimes is that we have insurance coverage," Palumbo said. "So you can get those prescription drugs covered by insurance, and then of course the abuse starts."

Palumbo said the forums are intended to educate Anoka County residents that heroin or opiate abuse does happen in their communities, and to convince parents to open up dialogues with their kids about opiate abuse.

Speakers at the forum talked about their own experiences with opiates or named other loved ones who'd been lost to addiction. But they weren't the only ones who'd been affected by opiate abuse. Many members of the crowd had their own story. Tom Lucas' 20-year-old son Joey died of a heroin overdose in 2006. Lucas is a former opiate abuser himself. He said he now wants to help solve the problem. He wants to see people talking openly about the dangers of over prescribing prescription drugs.

"'Don't let anybody know' doesn't work," Lucas said. "Bring it out, work together, don't crucify somebody because they have a problem."

Growing abuse of opiates isn't exclusive to Anoka County. Statistics from the first half of 2013 show that opiates, including heroin, continue to be a growing problem across the region. An updated count from Hennepin County says it had a record 56 heroin overdose deaths last year.