Eight people died and many more have been hospitalized due to heroin and methadone overdoses since early 2011 in Washington County, spurring authorities to team up with other east-metro agencies to bust suppliers.
Cheap but highly pure heroin from Mexico is increasingly popular with young people throughout the metro area -- and treatment centers, emergency rooms and law enforcers are grappling with the implications, said Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton and others.
It's an increasingly prevalent problem that authorities call both frightening and saddening.
"There's nothing, nothing more heartbreaking than a parent losing a kid to a drug overdose," said Pete Orput, Washington County attorney. "It's so senseless, it ranks up there with suicide."
Five years ago, a Northfield police chief first sounded the alarm over widespread use of heroin among young people in his city, where six died of heroin overdoses between 2006 and 2008. One death, of a 20-year-old woman, led to murder prosecutions.
Since then, heroin and methadone use has surged statewide. In Hastings, for example, at least four people died of heroin overdoses since 2009, including 18-year-old John Sorenson, who overdosed in his home in March after snorting heroin bought in St. Paul, Dakota County court papers say.
Washington and Dakota county authorities have formed an east-metro initiative to fight back.
"This is a huge public health issue in my view, and we need to team up and address this thing real hard," Orput said. "I think all of us prosecutors in the area are taking that position."
Washington County prosecutors are considering possible third-degree murder charges in three overdose deaths.
Supplies, deaths increase
Hutton said officers first heard of a rise in local heroin sales three or four years ago. The majority of those using heroin and other opiates in Washington County are white males ages 16 to 26, he said.
Authorities are not only interviewing overdose survivors about suppliers, they're going after those distributing OxyContin or other opiate pills, a gateway to heroin use, he said.
"We catch people selling the drugs, we're taking a very aggressive position," Orput said. "We catch people giving drugs to people who die, we're going to aggressively prosecute them with third-degree murder."
The abuse of heroin and other opiates hit the highest levels ever in the Twin Cities in 2011 and this year, said Carol Falkowski, a state drug strategy expert based in Mahtomedi.
In 2011, heroin deaths in Hennepin, Ramsey and Anoka counties nearly tripled from the year before, from 16 to 46. The pace continues.
"We've seen a significant increase in all indicators related to heroin and other opiates for the past five years, and especially over the past two years, with no signs of leveling," Falkowski said. "This includes overdose deaths, people who come into treatment programs, and arrest data.
"All of them are showing upward trends. In fact, from looking at people coming into treatment centers in the Twin Cities area, the number one drug is alcohol, but that is followed by heroin and other opiates combined. And that has never before been the case."
Confiscated heroin has tested at 93.5 percent to 99 percent pure in the Twin Cities, the nation's highest potency levels, officials said.
"That means that even experienced users, if they encounter an unexpectedly pure batch of that, can easily overdose, and the drug will stop their respiration," Falkowski said.
It's surprisingly affordable, too, even on a teen's budget.
"International economics has made it so that the price of heroin has gone way, way down relative to when we saw in the '70s and '80s," Orput said.
A first tack is to arrest those who illegally get and distribute OxyContin and other opiate pills.
"We're trying to get down to the root of it," Orput said. "We've got a lot of cases going."
The heroin problem is "absolutely" connected to the larger problem of prescription opiate abuse, Falkowski said. Many young users start by stealing their parents' pain pills. Or they get introduced to opiates as innocently as sharing Percodan after a soccer injury, or getting Vicodin from mom for menstrual cramps, she said.
Heroin gives a euphoria similar to oxycodone and other opiates, and it can cost as little as $10, and a significant amount can go for $80. It's available with little more effort than sending a text.
"They get some heroin, and they smoke it, and the next thing you know, you've got yourself an addict," Orput said.
Heroin can be snorted, smoked or injected. Hutton said many inject.
"The problem with opiates -- and heroin is an opiate -- is that they have high abuse potential, high addictive potential, and high overdose potential," said Falkowski, who previously worked at Hazelden treatment center in Center City.
Falkowski urged parents to talk to kids about medication, warning that it's not OK to share it with schoolmates or siblings. And adults can help by turning in unwanted prescriptions, she and Hutton said.
"People need to realize it's not an inner-city drug problem," Falkowski said. "It's everyone's in the state."
Joy Powell • 651-925-5038