Alarmed at the rising use of prescription opiates and the purity of heroin available in Minnesota, an array of state commissioners, prosecutors, doctors and judges called Thursday for a statewide drug-abuse strategy that centers on early education and intervention.

"The key to this strategy is prevention -- reaching people before the downward cycle of substance abuse leads to the destruction of families," Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said. She spoke at a news conference called to unveil a campaign to strengthen drug-prevention efforts using schools, drug courts, correctional facilities, the medical community and family-based counseling.

Minnesota Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy said the state also needs increased chemical dependency treatment for prison inmates, an overwhelming number of whom are addicted to drugs before they enter prison.

"We only have 800 treatment beds, and we are not meeting the needs of our offenders," Roy said. "There are more than 100,000 former offenders on our streets now. This is a life-and-death issue."

To build support for the strategy, Jesson and other officials will begin touring outstate communities in coming weeks, recruiting allies and gathering ideas about which programs work and why others fail.

Last year, more than 10 percent of metro area residents who entered treatment program reported that heroin use was their primary drug problem -- up sharply from 2007, according to a new report prepared by Carol Falkowski, the departing director of the Human Services Department's chemical health division. Another 7.7 percent said other opiates, primarily prescription painkillers, were their main problem. Non-metro residents reported similar increases, though they were much more likely to use prescription opiates than heroin.

For at least the past three years, Mexican drug cartels have flooded Minneapolis with high volumes of cheap and near-pure heroin, a simple economic strategy designed to increase demand and one that has left law enforcement and social service authorities on the defensive. The amount of heroin seized across the state rose 78 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the Department of Public Safety. Arrests for heroin possession during that time rose from 108 to 206.

Prescription opiates seized during that period indicate the immense task that schools and the medical community face. For example, authorities seized 944 units of oxycodone -- similar to heroin because of its strong euphoric effect -- in 2010. The next year, that figure climbed to nearly 2,600 units.

Jesson and Falkowski weren't able to say how much the campaign would cost, but both said legislators can be convinced that funding prevention programs is fiscally responsible in comparison to the costs of incarceration and destruction of families. "This isn't about asking for money," Falkowski said.

In Minnesota, the annual estimated cost of alcohol abuse exceeded $5 billion in 2007, according to a study by the state Department of Health, Falkowski said. Those costs were 17 times greater than the $296 million in tax revenues collected from the sale of alcohol.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that every dollar invested in drug treatment returns up to $12 in reduced costs for drug-related crime and health care.

Judge Robert Rancourt of Chisago County described how he begins every workday with a certain routine. "I have an obituary in my office that I read every day," Rancourt said. "It's of a 17-year-old girl who died after a long struggle with drugs. We can do better."

Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745