MINNEAPOLIS - Heroin-related deaths nearly tripled in three Minnesota counties in 2011, prompting sheriffs in the Twin Cities area on Thursday to issue a public plea for help in combating growing use of the drug in the area.
There were 46 heroin-related deaths in Anoka, Hennepin and Ramsey counties last year, compared with 16 in 2010. In Anoka County alone, there were 55 heroin overdoses in which the victim survived in 2011, up from just nine non-fatal overdoses a year earlier.
"We don't want to see heroin claim more lives and we don't want another year with huge numbers like that," Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said. "And even one death, of course, is way too many."
Stanek, Ramsey County Sheriff Matt Bostrom and Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart asked citizens to clean out their medicine cabinets, saying that abuse of prescription painkillers could be a gateway to heroin use. All three counties have set up drop boxes where citizens can safely dispose of unused or expired prescription drugs.
Authorities aren't calling heroin use an epidemic in the Twin Cities, but they say growing use is a trend they'd like to stop in its tracks.
A January update on drug abuse trends says abuse of heroin and other opiates reached record levels in the five-county metro area last year.
That Department of Human Services report says heroin accounted for 10 percent of admissions to addiction treatment programs in the first half of 2011, up from 3.3 percent in 2000.
Other cities are seeing similar trends.
According to the most recent National Drug Threat Assessment released last fall, more than 60 U.S. counties in more than 30 states saw increases in heroin-related deaths or non-fatal overdoses. The report, released by the National Drug Intelligence Center, said heroin — including a type known as Mexican black tar — has become more available in the U.S. in recent years, and the bulk of heroin made in Mexico is destined for the United States.
The Minnesota sheriffs had some Mexican black tar on hand at Thursday's news conference. Some of the drug, seized from an air conditioning unit in a motel room as part of a drug investigation, was packaged in cellophane and looked like black rocks, about the size of golf balls. Some was packaged in amounts smaller than a pea, which sell on the street for about $20 each, Stanek said.
Authorities also said heroin in the Twin Cities market was recently tested to be 93.5 percent pure, which could lead to an increased risk of overdose.
"We are here to say, no more. Not in our communities," Stuart said. "This is poison. It is never safe to put in your body."
Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control also show an increase in heroin-related deaths nationwide. The CDC says there were over 3,200 heroin-related deaths in 2009, the year for which the most current data was available.