Overdose deaths in Minnesota from prescription painkillers and heroin have soared to a level that now exceeds deaths from motor vehicle accidents, new numbers from the state Department of Health show.

The trend has both alarmed and frustrated local law enforcement officials, who say they're seeing no end to arrests and prosecutions resulting from highly addictive opiates circulating in the underground market.

"It's heartbreaking for families and the community and for me," said Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, whose office over the past two years has prosecuted 12 cases related to drug overdose deaths. "I sometimes feel like I'm losing that war, but I'm not sure what else to do other than to try to raise the awareness in the communities of the dangers of this.

"I think we need to scream about it, not just talk about it."

In 2013, the Health Department reported, 507 Minnesotans died of all types of drug overdoses including 329 in the 11-county metro area. Deaths from prescribed pain relievers — and illegal heroin, a close cousin in the opiate family — accounted for many of them. By comparison, 374 Minnesotans died in motor vehicle accidents.

The Minnesota findings mirror a national study, released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that confirm widespread public exposure to prescription drugs and increasing rates of opiate addiction.

Heroin deaths have increased sharply in many states, the CDC said, but nearly twice as many people died from prescription drug overdoses as from heroin. In Minnesota, 200 people died from overdosing on prescribed pain relievers in 2013; 91 died from overdosing on heroin.

The CDC study of 2012 deaths, published in this week's "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report," also concluded that while most prescription drug abusers don't become heroin users, "heroin often costs less than prescription [drugs] and is increasingly available."

Minnesota was one of 28 states studied.

The Minnesota Health Department findings showed that since 2000, nearly 5,000 people statewide have died from overdoses.

Many of those drug deaths involved accidental poisonings and suicides, but a growing number of cases were prosecuted as third-degree murder after investigators found that the sale of a drug led to an overdose death.

That was the case in Washington County this winter when Emily Frye, of Oakdale, was convicted and sent to prison for seven years for selling 23 methadone pills to a Scandia man who overdosed and died.

Hennepin County recorded the most overdose deaths — nearly 1,400 in 14 years and 143 last year alone. Ramsey County has recorded 693 drug deaths since 2000, followed by Anoka County with 344, Dakota County with 322 and Washington County with 183.

In Hennepin County, prosecutors have charged seven people in the past 32 months with third-degree murder in overdose deaths.

"Putting the pieces together is hard," Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said Thursday. "We have more cases now than we've ever had before. Lots of times it's not an easy crime to prove."

Fighting back

At the state Department of Health's Injury and Violence Prevention Unit, epidemiologist supervisor Jon Roesler described the rash of drug deaths as difficult to predict and control because people abuse so many drugs for so many reasons.

"People are using what's available and what's cheap," he said. "We deal with it in one place and it pops up in another."

Brian Mueller, investigations commander at the Washington County Sheriff's Office, said law enforcement agencies have countered with drug takeback programs, community forums, drug courts and a combined drug task force. Even so, he said, the sheer volume of prescription drugs being traded and sold "significantly" occupies resources.

The prescription drug traffic comes on top of a flood of higher-purity, lower-cost heroin into Minnesota from Mexican drug cartels, said Mueller, who oversees the department's narcotics division. Heroin, although a morphine derivative, isn't a prescribed drug and is illegal to buy and possess.

The combination of available drugs "is a serious problem in our community," Mueller said.

Minnesota's prescription drug problem evolved from overtreating chronic pain, said Cody Wiberg, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy. Aggressive marketing of painkilling drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin also led to the widespread availability of opiates.

"We're talking about tens of thousands of Americans dying every year from this epidemic," Wiberg said.

The pharmacy board has fought back by working to shut down websites that illegally sell prescription drugs, by pushing for legislation requiring stricter control and by monitoring sales of prescription controlled substances to thwart a phenomenon known as "doctor shopping" — where people visit several doctors in rapid succession to get prescriptions.

Wiberg said that studies have shown that most people say they get prescription drugs from friends and family. That's often because drugs are overprescribed, meaning a patient might be given 50 pills when only two are needed.

While Wiberg called the rise in overdose deaths "a disturbing trend," Roesler, at the Health Department, said the steady decline in accidental injury motor vehicle deaths in Minnesota is "wonderful news." Historically, that has been the leading cause of preventable deaths. Drug deaths took the lead a few years ago.

But Roesler and Rick Carlson, the epidemiologist who compiled the state data at the Star Tribune's request, said the public should find the corresponding rise in drug overdose deaths worrisome.

"It's concerning in the public health world, but I would say that to any family, it's alarming," Carlson said.

Even as the number of overdose deaths continues to climb, the prescription drug problem is even worse than it appears, Roesler and Carlson said, because many more people overdose but survive. While overdose deaths were reported in all age groups, Carlson's data show that most occur in men and women ages 45-54.

In May, Orput's office charged two young adults and three teenagers in the overdose death of Tara Fitzgerald, a 17-year-old honor student from Woodbury. Fitzgerald died in January after orally taking a synthetic drug marketed as the hallucinogenic drug LSD. Two of the five charged in the case have since pleaded guilty.

Meanwhile, county prosecutors also are pursuing several other overdose cases.

"Right now we're just prosecuting them left and right," Orput said. "When someone's dead, we put all the time in that we need to get a just verdict."

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037