Cheaper and accessible, law enforcement sees its use as the next big drug threat in Morrison County
Heroin is thought of as a drug of the 1970s, with its skinny, strung-out users sporting telltale track marks on their arms. Heroin hasn’t been thought of as a problem for years, as the likes of crack, crack cocaine and methamphetamine and in most recent years, prescription drugs, took its place.
As laws and law enforcement came down hard on one drug, the next emerged. And so it is with the return of heroin.
As law enforcement and state laws began cracking down on methamphetamine use and production, addicts began abusing prescription medications.
Over the past year, since the birth of the Prescription Drug Task Force in Morrison and several surrounding counties, heroin is once again rearing its addictive and deadly head.
Deadly, because within the last six to seven months, nine deaths have been attributed to a heroin overdose — five in St. Cloud, two in Sherburne County and one, possibly two, in Morrison County.
Sgt. Charles Strack, drug force investigator in Morrison County with the Central Minnesota Violent Offenders Task Force, said as it became harder and more expensive for addicts to get their hands on prescription drugs, heroin shipped in from Minneapolis became a cheaper, more intense and readily available high.
Heroin is a derivative of the opiate poppy. Many prescription medications, such as Percocet, Oxycontin and Oxycodone, Vicoden and others are also opiates and can be very addictive.
As doctors prescribed medications to keep their patients out of pain, a trend for some was to take too many of their pain medications, and then, to sell them on the street, where they can get anywhere from $20 to $80 per pill.
“Only 5 percent of people get addicted to narcotics,” said Dr. Greg McNamara, who is a member of the Prescription Drug Task Force. “Those are the people who ruin it for everyone else, for the people who need the medication for pain.”
He said, like alcoholics, people must have a genetic disposition to becoming addicted.
The Task Force comes up with suggestions for providers about how to monitor patients with chronic pain who take narcotics — any narcotic. “There’s not one over the other,” said McNamara.
The physicians work with the pharmacies to keep track of how many pills an individual buys. They also work with law enforcement.
“The bigger issue is the sale of them; when they divert their prescriptions to other people because the market value is so high,” said the doctor.
The state also has a database accessible to doctors so if people go to another community to obtain prescriptions for narcotics, it can be checked. “We’ve been doing that for a couple of years,” said McNamara.
Strack encourages all doctors to use the state database.
McNamara said locally, doctors are also making pain contracts with the patients in chronic pain who take the narcotics. The patient agrees to get medications from just one provider and one pharmacy.
“They know we will be calling them at random to bring their pill bottle in so we can count the number of pills they have,” said McNamara. “We also do random drug screens.”
The screening finds illegal drugs or the lack of the drug the patient is supposed to be on, signaling they may be selling their pills.
“If they’re supposed to be taking Vicoden and we do a drug screen and there’s no Vicoden, we know they’re not taking their drugs. Then they are cut off,” said McNamara.
Strack said addicts can need up to as many as 20 to 30 pills per day, as their bodies need more and more of the drug to keep from going into withdrawal, making for a very costly habit.
Heroin solved the costly part of the problem, but added to it a risk factor because those using it have no idea what percentage of what they are using is heroin. Strack said heroin is sometimes cut (diluted) with different agents so dealers get more money per gram and users are getting a product that is only 50 percent pure heroin.
On the flip side, users may not know it, but sometimes they may get a product that hasn’t been cut with an additive and is 90 percent or more pure heroin — and when they use as much of the 90 percent as they did of the 50 percent, it is deadly.
Strack said the heroin is being shipped from the Minneapolis area and depending on whether it comes from North or South Minneapolis, it can be a different color or cut with a multitude of agents, or not cut at all.
The opiates, from Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the poppies are grown, find different routes to Minnesota.
Wetzel said Mexican cartels have capitalized on a growing dependence on prescription drugs and the expense, have channeled heroin from Southeast Asia to Mexico and have various pipelines into the U.S.
Strack said educating officers and the community has already begun. Strack is part of the team that trains officers on what to look for during routine traffic stops. He travels all over, “Wherever there’s a need, we go,” he said. From Moorhead to the Twin Cities, and even helping the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
He also gives a presentation to high school-aged kids, showing how dependence on prescription drugs starts — usually with a physical injury — and how it escalates and segues into heroin use and addiction.
“I love my job, but it’s sad,” said Strack. “When you know it’s in the high school, that’s scary, because kids are up there buying prescription drugs.”
He’d like to see those who use prescription drugs legally, take steps to keep them out of the hands of anyone else, from locking them up in their homes to taking what they don’t use to the prescription drug drop-off points. Never put the pills in a medicine cabinet, Strack said.
Strack and Wetzel agree the problem with heroin sprang not only from the cost of prescription pills on the street, but from the steps law enforcement, doctors and pharmacies have taken to stop prescription drug abuse.
“It’s a direct fallout from the Prescription Drug Task Force,” said Wetzel. “It’s like the meth thing. We put all those resources into getting rid of meth and seemed to really knock it down. Then pain killers went up and we started working with doctors and pharmacies on prescription drug abuse and got a pretty good hold on that.”
People can even drop off their unused prescription drugs at the police station in Little Falls, no questions asked, to prevent others from getting their hands on them.
“It’s almost like we’re squeezing a balloon every time, it just bulges somewhere else. It gets a little disgusting,” said Wetzel.
Although there are signs for people to look for that indicate heroin addiction, track marks on the arms isn’t one of them any more. Addicts don’t want that social stigma and have resorted to snorting or smoking the heroin.
Anyone who suspects someone they know is addicted to or selling heroin, may call a toll-free anonymous tip line in Morrison County — 1 (888) 378-4847.
Residents are always welcome to call Strack at the Little Falls Police Department, (320) 616-5570, for more information or for help.
To prevent friends or loved ones from a possible heroin overdose and death, Strack said, “Calling law enforcement should be the first resort, not the last resort.”
“Because as the last resort, we’re the ones they call right before the ambulance,” he said.