The pace of overdose deaths from heroin and prescription pain medicine abuse rose in the Twin Cities in the first part of last year, even as a battle raged to slow the deadly epidemic.

That’s the finding of a new drug-trends study released Thursday, which among other things reported that 69 people died of opiate-related overdoses in Hennepin County alone in the first half of 2013, compared to 84 for all of 2012.

The rise in opiate-related deaths came even as drug experts, law enforcement and others fought to slow a problem they say is fueled by legal drugs in the bathroom cabinet and an underground market flooded with cheap heroin.

“We’ve known about this opiate thing for a while, and something’s not penetrating, and I don’t know what that is,” said Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director of Hazelden’s youth facility in Plymouth. “It’s tragic to see families torn apart by this.”

About half of the overdose deaths in Hennepin County were people in their 20s, said Carol Falkowski, the founder of Drug Abuse Dialogues and the author of the Minnesota Drug Abuse Trends report.

“Many people are introduced to opiate addiction through prescription pain medication,” she said. “And then they switch to heroin because it’s equally available and it’s more affordable.”

Among Falkowski’s findings:

• A total of 122 people died of opiate, cocaine and methamphetamine overdoses in Hennepin and Ramsey counties in the first half of 2013, compared to 171 deaths all of 2012.

• In Ramsey County, the numbers went the opposite way from Hennepin County’s: 22 people died of opiate-related overdoses in the first six months of last year, compared to 45 in 2012.

• Admissions to Minneapolis and St. Paul treatment centers by substance abuse problem broke down this way in the first half of 2013: 13.6 percent for heroin, 10.1 percent for other opiates, 9.4 percent for meth, 4.1 percent for cocaine, 16 percent for marijuana and 2.7 percent for other or unknown substances. Alcohol abuse accounted for the most admissions, at 44.2 percent.

• Law enforcement seized more methamphetamine, which has resurged in popularity in some areas, though its use doesn’t match its popularity peak in 2005.

• There was a tripling in LSD-related poisonings reported to the Hennepin Regional Poison Center.

• Bath salt use appears to be in decline.

Preventable tragedies

Among those drug trends, it’s been the rise of heroin and prescription pain medicine abuse that has captured the most attention, particularly as it kills young people in accidental overdoses. The drug has reached far into the metro area suburbs, with some towns hosting forums to talk about what’s happening in their high schools, while others hold memorials.

Three teenagers died of overdoses between May and November in St. Francis, Minn., alone. Parents there responded by creating a nonprofit to combat the spread of heroin, launching a Facebook page and organizing two community forums.

“This is a trend unlike we’ve seen before,” said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek. “Every single one of these dang things is preventable. That’s what’s so tragic about it.”

New strategies to fight the epidemic have included charging drug dealers with third-degree murder.

“We are trying to make it real clear that we will prosecute those cases,” said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. “I think the word does get out to some of the dealers that, ‘Hey, we’re going to come after you on this stuff.’”

State Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, whose daughter died of a heroin overdose in 2007, has proposed a bill that would allow law enforcement to carry naloxone, a drug that can quickly reverse the effects of a heroin overdose. “It’s a lifesaver,” she said.

“We have such a pure form here,” she said. “It’s virtually uncut. People who are used to doing heroin, even experienced people, are overdosing because the stuff is so pure.”

Eaton’s bill would also make it easier for users to call for help, protecting them from prosecution for things found at the scene of an emergency brought on by an overdose.

Eaton expects her bill to come up for a vote this session. “It seems to me to be a no-brainer,” she said.

‘That’s how it starts’

Lee, of Hazelden’s youth facility, said the public can’t be warned enough about throwing out unused prescription painkillers.

“They all start the same way,” he said of the young addicts he treats. “Their dentist gave them Vicodin for wisdom teeth surgery and they started taking it, and they liked it, so they took more. That’s how it starts.”

Becky Scheig, who lost her son Andrew to a heroin overdose on March 5 of last year, said she recently spoke to one of his friends who is in treatment and has been clean for three months, she said.

He told her that it’s harder to find prescription painkillers, possibly because of efforts to empty medicine cabinets of unused medicines. But he also told her that “heroin is even more available,” she said.