Communities fight back as heroin use surges

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 8, 2013 - 10:08 PM

From west metro cities along Lake Minnetonka to the east metro, the rise in heroin use and its effects are spurring new education and enforcement efforts.

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Emily and her dad, Mound Mayor Mark Hanus, are rebuilding trust and sharing their story.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Consumed by her drug addiction, Emily Hanus turned to her parents for help. Not for treatment, but to snatch their power tools and jewelry to sell for drug money.

After six years of drug use that morphed from prescription pills to heroin, she was finally forced at age 19 to confront the problem from jail, arrested for burglarizing her parents' Mound home.

In the Lake Minnetonka suburb where her father is the mayor, her story is becoming more common as abuse of heroin and prescription pills soars across the Twin Cities, reflecting a national trend. Recently released numbers show heroin and prescription pill use reached a record high in the Twin Cities in the first half of 2012, accounting for 21 percent of all addiction treatment patients, second only to alcohol.

"We've never seen this level of heroin abuse and addiction in the Twin Cities or the state," said Carol Falkowski, a longtime drug prevention expert and former state chemical health director who released the data.

The drug trend is particularly alarming because opiates -- heroin and prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, codeine and Vicodin -- have a higher potential for abuse, addiction and overdose than other drugs.

As concern grows, the state is ramping up drug prevention efforts across schools and communities. In the east metro, Washington County is going after heroin suppliers. In Mound, an overflow meeting last fall for parents and school officials was so packed that another one is set for Feb. 21.

"As a parent, you just throw up your arms," said Mayor Mark Hanus, who spoke at last fall's meeting and has traveled to churches and schools with Emily to share their story. "I had to make the decision to prosecute my own daughter -- that's the most difficult decision you can make."

New drug of choice: Heroin

Heroin has emerged as a popular drug as prescription pill abuse increased. Those pills mimic heroin, prompting users who can't get them or develop a tolerance to turn to the street drug. "The cartels have decided heroin is the next big thing," said Cmdr. Rich Clark of the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office.

In December, the Southwest Hennepin Drug Task Force conducted its largest heroin seizure of 2012, confiscating 1,300 grams of heroin that likely would have been sold through the west metro. Home burglaries are on the rise in the west metro as thieves steal prescription pills or items to sell for drug money.

"A lot of them are taking from their own houses or their neighborhoods," Orono Police Chief Correy Farniok said.

Statewide, heroin arrests jumped nearly 82 percent from 2010 to 2011. In the metro, heroin use has quadrupled since 2000, rising from 3.3 percent of addiction treatment admissions to 12.5 percent last year, according to state drug data. Like Emily Hanus, most treatment patients admitted for heroin are white and between 18 to 25 years old, though men outnumber women 3-1, according to state drug data.

"This isn't some sort of inner city problem. It's across the state," Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said.

To combat the spread, the state last fall launched a drug-abuse strategy to increase resources everywhere from schools to hospitals. This year, Gov. Mark Dayton's proposed budget has training so doctors can better spot opiate and prescription pill abuse and double the mental health grants for schools to bring in clinic experts.

The growing numbers of abusers shocked Spring Park parent Norina Dove. She organized the community meeting in Mound last fall that was packed with more than 200 area parents, police, school and officials.

"If people don't believe their child is affected, they're in denial," Dove said. "Every kid is a target. People need to be aware of what's happening. If they don't get help, they're going to end up dead."

'An instant love'

Nothing -- not dodging death after a serious overdose or time in two treatment centers -- slowed Emily Hanus' drug use.

When she was 13, she started smoking cigarettes and drinking. At school, she found it easy to get prescription pills like Adderall, OxyContin and Vicodin. By 14, she had turned to marijuana, ecstasy and meth. Then at 16, she discovered heroin.

"It was an instant love," she said.

She soon found out heroin was easier to get and four times cheaper than prescription pills, just a call away with a number passed around at school. She quit her senior year, left her parents' home and got high daily. To make money, she stole power tools, heirloom watches, even $6,000 worth of her mom's gold jewelry -- now unrecoverable, melted down for cash. "I felt like I was going to die without it," she said. "In my head, it was pure survival mode."

With an arrest warrant already out for her for stealing snowboards to get drug money, she and two friends went to her parents' house in May to steal their car to go to Minneapolis for heroin. She was arrested outside their home.

A judge gave her a choice: stay in jail or go to Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge in Minneapolis for treatment and to finish high school. She chose the latter.

Two weeks ago, she celebrated her 20th birthday along with two other milestones: graduating from high school and reaching her eighth month sober. She's studying for the ACT and mending her strained relationship with her father.

"Today, all it is is a text message on the phone -- that's all it takes," Mark Hanus said about the ease of obtaining drugs.

In June, Emily Hanus plans to graduate from the 13-month program and apply to college, ready to put her past behind.

"It doesn't matter what your background is. It can hit you and it can hit you hard," she said. "But there's hope. It's definitely not a forever thing."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib

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