There is no time for hand-wringing, only action, if Minnesota is to stem the tide of heroin deaths in recent years, elected officials and anti-drug advocates agreed Sunday at a roundtable discussion convened by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
The Minnesota Democrat released a letter imploring the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to help stop the flow of inexpensive, high-purity heroin from Mexico to Chicago to Minnesota, while state and local officials promoted efforts to curb prescription drug abuse and to put heroin antidotes in the hands of law enforcement officers.
The 90-minute session at the Hazelden Center for Youth and Families in Plymouth found the rise in opiate use and fatalities described in terms like “scourge” and “epidemic,” and came two weeks after celebrated actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his New York apartment with a syringe in his arm.
Although identifying no one specifically, Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director of Hazelden’s youth facility, told Klobuchar and other roundtable participants that calls about celebrity deaths can be discouraging to Lee because “it takes the problem far away from here.”
Sunday’s event, in several ways, drove home the point that many kids dying in Minnesota could be “anyone’s kids.”
State Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, whose daughter died of a heroin overdose in 2007, has proposed a bill allowing officers and deputies to carry naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose. Her legislation also seeks to encourage drug users to call for help by protecting them from prosecution for items found at the scene of an overdose emergency.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, asked by an observer why dealers now were selling heroin so potent that it was “a lethal product,” replied that it was all about establishing “market share … It’s cheap. It’s pure. It’s as simple as that.”
Star Selleck, a nurse from Edina who also attended Sunday’s discussion, rose to speak on behalf of Eaton’s bill, including the provision protecting people who make 911 calls.
“Most heroin users use with someone else,” Selleck said. “But most heroin deaths occur alone.”
She said that her son, Ian Selleck, had been like other heroin users described on Sunday, moving from addiction to prescription medication to heroin. Ian died on Sept. 11, 2009, a day after his 19th birthday, and just a few days after he first told his mother that he’d used heroin.
Star Selleck said that she found her son on the kitchen floor, still alive. But when an officer arrived, and she asked if he had Narcan, a brand name for naloxone, “the antidote that could have saved Ian’s life,” she said, the officer replied sadly that he did not.
Two weeks ago, Stanek, who supports the naloxone legislation, reported that Hennepin County had set a record in 2013 for heroin overdose deaths with 54 fatalities. On Sunday, that figure was revised to 56, or seven times more than the eight deaths reported in 2010.
The surge in heroin use extends beyond Minnesota.
Carol Falkowski, the founder of Drug Abuse Dialogues, said Sunday that a report last month showed that heroin use had escalated in 17 of 20 cities nationwide.
Klobuchar said she had not known until recently that four of five heroin users initially had abused prescription drugs. She said she supports drug take-back programs like those offered in Hennepin County and elsewhere, and helped to write national legislation that she said will make it easier for pharmacies to collect unused prescription drugs.
The federal government, however, has yet to adopt and publish the rules needed to put pharmacy collections into practice, she added.
Eaton is preparing for her bill to be heard this year by state Senate committees. There to advocate for it will be Selleck. She wants to honor her son’s memory, and will never again underestimate the drug that killed him.
“I just hadn’t processed how deadly it was,” she said.