Cheaper, stronger heroin claiming more lives

  • Article by: MATT MCKINNEY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 16, 2012 - 12:20 AM

Opiate overdoses have claimed new users and longtime addicts alike as the drug floods the Twin Cities market.

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Shawn Ian Pike, 48, died of a heroin overdose.

A kid just a few years out of high school who struggled with self-esteem and a lifelong junkie whose promising music career was cut short by drug use were two of the latest victims in a rising tide of heroin overdose deaths in the Twin Cities, according to medical records.

The rise in overdose deaths has long been anticipated by drug abuse experts, who say cheap, strong heroin has flooded the Twin Cities market.

A soon-to-be-released state report says a record 120 people died in the Twin Cities last year from heroin and opiate overdoses, the latter drug including prescription medications like Oxycontin and Vicodin.

And the deaths keep coming. So far in Minneapolis alone this year, heroin overdoses have killed a 25-year-old rugby player, a graduate of Irondale High School, a 23-year-old from Minnetonka, a Stanford graduate who loved the Montreux Jazz Festival, and a man whose family knew he was using crack, but didn't know about the heroin.

The victims are primarily men, some of them newcomers to the drug like Joseph Jacobson, 22, a shy man with a lisp who washed dishes at Hopkins High School. His girlfriend said he tried heroin for the first time last October. He was dead by April.

The list includes longtime users as well, people like Shawn Ian Pike, 48, a guitar player who had stalked the stage at First Avenue in the '80s punk scene. He was known to use heroin then, and his addiction lasted for decades until March 31, when he died after injecting himself in an Uptown apartment.

Tests of the heroin sold in the Twin Cities have shown some of it to be highly potent, among the strongest heroin in the nation. That means no one can be sure when they're giving themselves a lethal dose, said Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner Andrew Baker.

"Every time you take it you're taking a huge crapshoot with your life," he said.

That was the warning Katie Murray gave her boyfriend over and over, she said, but Joe Jacobson eventually stopped listening to her. "He was a really good person," she said of Jacobson. "He cared a lot about his friends and people in his life. He didn't care so much about himself."

She knew her boyfriend used drugs as an escape, had done marijuana since he was in junior high, and had taken Xanax for a few years, but last fall around October he bought heroin for the first time. "I would always try to encourage him to stop doing drugs and get his life together," she said. "He thought he had dug himself into a hole and it's too late to get out of it."

He had severe mood swings, and in December he went on a drinking binge that ended with a suicide attempt in a hotel room. His co-workers at the high school cafeteria noticed that his usually affable demeanor was changing, said one of them, Terry Tucker. In one of her last conversations with him she noticed that he looked exhausted.

"What can you do, short of putting him in a straitjacket and carting him up to Hazelden?" she said.

Jacobson took his job seriously and was proud of his clean work record, said his aunt, Jody Pruitt. Pruitt, who has been both a public defender and an intensive care unit nurse, knew people who had taken heroin.

"I talked to Joe about my experience with people with different types of drugs and there's nothing he should be ashamed to tell me. Drugs are not tied to class. It goes across all types of people and all socioeconomic groups," she said. Despite offers of help, Jacobson's addiction quickly grew, as did a slew of personal problems.

A car his dad helped him buy had caught on fire as he drove it down the highway two weeks after he drove it off a used car lot in February. He had been kicked out of his mother's apartment and was living with friends. He landed in a University of Minnesota detox treatment center in March, spending three days there. That's when Katie told him she needed to take a break from their relationship.

"We were hopeful that he was going to take sobriety seriously," said Todd Jacobson, Joe's father, an attorney based in North Carolina. He said his son was usually a "very sweet and gentle kid," who could turn angry and spiteful when he was intoxicated. Joe called his dad shortly after he left the detox center, from a bar.

The night he died, April 11, Jacobson went to a bar with some friends, his father later learned. They ended up at a house in northeast Minneapolis. Joe never woke up.

Todd Jacobson learned from the medical examiner's office that Joe had a moderate amount of alcohol in his blood when he died, and a dangerously high level of morphine, the residual evidence of a heroin hit.

There were 130 people at Jacobson's funeral.

A wave of deaths

Driven by a surge in prescription painkiller abuse, drug addicts have turned to heroin in larger numbers over the past decade, say drug abuse experts. The heroin here comes mainly from Mexico.

A social worker at Teen Challenge said the treatment center has seen a tenfold increase in opiate users since 2002.

Justin Fox, 23, said he first smoked pot at age 12, drank at 14 and had graduated to heroin by 18. "If you know the right people, it's definitely available," said Fox, a recovering user who's getting treatment at Teen Challenge. Heroin is cheaper now than when he was using regularly, he said, with a quarter gram costing $40 instead of $50.

"My thinking was always 'I'll just do enough,'" he said. "At first it's fun. It feels good. Once you start doing it every day for an extensive period, you have to have it in the mornings ... If you don't have it you're sick. You can't sleep, you can't eat. You want to throw up."

The need to stay high, and the pain of weaning yourself off of it, is what most people don't realize about heroin, said Sari Gordon, who lost friends to the drug.

A musician and writer, she was in the Minneapolis band Timbuktu with Shawn Ian Pike in the '80s. He was the guitar player, a self-taught natural who played a "crazy, weird, wild" style. The band once opened for acclaimed rocker Nick Cave, but Pike began using heroin early on and whatever trajectory his music career could have had was lost.

Pike worked as a courier driver and floral business driver for years, then was homeless.

She hadn't seen him for years until last summer, at a funeral of a former bandmate.

"[Pike] was drunk. He looked awful," she said.

Pike still had a lot of friends, reconnecting through social media. "When he got on Facebook, everybody swarmed," said Gordon.

Pike had been through a lot of ups and downs, Gordon said, and lately he had been up, despite continuing his habit. "He thought he was pulling his life together," she said.

Pike injected himself in bed, and that's where he was found March 31, according to Gordon.

Several of Pike's friends knew the dealer who sold him the heroin that killed him, and at least one of them called the police, Gordon said. At a memorial ceremony held near Loring Park, old friends shared their memories of the guitarist who once lit up the Seventh Street Entry.

A few of the people at the ceremony still use heroin, Gordon said, and one woman there said she had strong dope to sell.

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747

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