Heroin deaths in the Twin Cities skyrocketed last year as the drug grew more popular, potent and deadly.
Deaths caused by heroin overdoses in Hennepin, Ramsey and Anoka counties nearly tripled in 2011 compared to the year before, rising from 16 to 46. New test results showed that heroin purchased in the Twin Cities is 93.5 percent pure -- the highest potency in the nation.
"We don't want to see heroin claim more lives, and we don't want another year with huge numbers," Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said during a news conference Thursday afternoon. "From the information that we've seen so far this year, I'm not optimistic. So far in 2012, there are signs that the heroin problem is persisting, in fact, maybe even growing."
Will Connell, 21, knows all too well how easy it is to overdose on heroin.
"You don't know how strong it is until you get high," he said. "And then it can be too late. It's just one of the easier drugs to overdose on."
He and several of his friends have overdosed; some needed medical attention. "None of my friends died, but they came close," he said. "It's definitely a wakeup call."
Like many heroin users, Connell, who has been sober for 20 months, began with less powerful drugs. He started drinking when he was 13. But by the time he was 15, he was abusing prescription pills. "You could get the feeling of being drunk without having to drink. And you could take them in school and no one would know," said Connell, who grew up in Hastings and is a graduate and now a staff member of Minnesota Teen Challenge, a chemical addiction treatment program.
The prescription drugs made it easier to try cocaine and ecstasy, he said. Then he started on Oxycontin, which led to heroin because "it's easier to find, cheaper and more convenient," Connell said.
The key to attacking the problem lies in the home medicine cabinet, he said. "It all starts with people being more conscious about prescription pill abuse," Connell said.
Stanek, along with Ramsey County Sheriff Matt Bostrom and Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart, sounded a similar note Thursday. The trio pleaded for parents, educators and the general public to be more aware of the dangers of heroin and other drugs.
Based on numbers for the first three months of the year, Hennepin County authorities are already on track to surpass the amount of heroin seized last year, Stanek said.
In Hennepin County alone, heroin-related deaths increased from eight in 2010 to 21 in 2011. In Ramsey County, heroin deaths quadrupled from three to a dozen over the same time frame. In Anoka County, nine people survived overdoses and five died in 2010, compared to 13 who died last year and 55 who survived.
An old problem returns
The drug, which police believe to be coming from Mexico and elsewhere, was a major problem a generation ago, Bostrom said.
"Those were some very difficult times. ... We don't want to go back there," Bostrom said.
In recent years, the drug has seen a resurgence in popularity in Minnesota. The high potency of the drug now means it is easier to accidentally overdose, authorities said.
It also can be less expensive than prescription painkillers such as Percocet, Vicodin and Oxycontin, which have been the target of pharmacy robberies in recent months.
An expanding problem
While heroin is usually injected, it can also be snorted or smoked, which are more popular methods among new users.
Although it isn't seen on the streets in the form of white powder (commonly referred to as "China White") as much as it used to be, it has been seized in other forms in the metro, including "Black Tar," golf-ball-size clumps or smaller pieces in candy-wrapper-type packages.
Suburbs have also seen increased heroin trafficking.
In 2011, Dakota County prosecuted 39 adult cases of heroin possession or distribution compared to 22 in 2009. Scott County prosecuted 37 in 2009, up from 10 in 2010.
Staff writer Mary Lynn Smith contributed to this report. Nicole Norfleet 612-673-4495 Twitter: @stribnorfleet