By Sam Lenhart
Last October, six heroin overdoses were reported in Anoka County within a 12 hour period and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heroin use among people ages 18-25 has more than doubled in the past decade. Fatal overdoes have nearly quadrupled from 2002-2013.
Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart, FBI Counsel Jeffery Van Nest and a representative from Jake’s Sake Foundation spoke during the Feb. 16 Compassion Action Network meeting in the Unity Hospital Auditorium to share the reality of the situation and what is being done about it.
Compassion Action Network is a collaborative effort of Anoka County Human Services, faith communities and nonprofit organizations that intends to build resources and strengthen the community.
Heroin is an opioid drug made from morphine, a natural substance taken from the opium poppy plant. Heroin can be a white, tan or brown powder, or a black sticky substance known as black tar heroin. Other common street names for heroin include horse, junk, and smack.
People have this idea in their heads of what a heroin user looks like and it is usually someone with a “long leather jacket in a dark alley,” said Stuart. But the reality of the situation is that more and more young adults in high school and college are using heroin and being killed.
In 2008 there were only two heroin/opioid deaths but that number spiked to 10 by 2013.
“That is when we started to identify that heroin isn’t the only problem,” said Stuart. “We began to identify that we had almost as many overdoses related to the Methadone project as we did with heroin.”
Methadone is an addictive drug that is used to wean people off of opiates by working on parts of the brain and spinal cord to block the “high” caused by using opiates.
Anoka County began to identify these issues and the overdose numbers went down in 2014 and 2015.
“I perhaps naively started feeling good about what we were doing in the heroin community because those numbers started to decline and then in 2016 they spiked again,” said Stuart. “For these numbers to continue to rise, it tells me that there is a major push back on behalf of the dealers and cartels.”
Law enforcement agencies are seeing trends in the quality of heroin being sold in northern Hennepin County and Anoka County.
“It is some of the purest heroin in the nation,” said Stuart. “Our laboratories are finding that the heroin being distributed is 90 percent plus pure. Dealers want to set their hooks into this market and they want to set it deep.”
Prescription narcotics and alcohol are the leading gateway drugs to heroin use and addiction.
“What we are seeing way to often is that the gateway to heroin is the Vidicon, Hydrocodone, Morphine, OxyContin and Codeine,” said Stuart. “They aren’t just being prescribed but they are being over prescribed. I think your average person probably takes two or three if they take any and yet you get a pill bottle of 30 that is often renewable. That is why people have stashes of these things and not only do kids know where to look but they are getting them.”
These drugs, which are all opiates similar to heroin, have dramatically altered the route to addiction.
“In Anoka County we are typically seeing $2,000 per ounce or $150 per gram or $10 to $20 for a ‘point’ which is .1 gram,” said Stuart.
This leads to people to wonder why they are paying $1 per milligram for prescription opiates when they can get the equivalent amount of heroin for a fraction of the price.
“It can start with a simple injury,” Stuart said.
Heroin addiction is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, and by neurochemical and molecular changes in the brain. However, heroin users with a history of drug abuse may be able to conceal the signs.
“Users are often disorientated to time and constipation is often a problem,” said Stuart. “Users will spend extended periods of time in the bathroom and become owlish – staying up all night and sleeping all day.”
Other signs include runny nose, bloodshot eyes, excessive yawning, sneezing, fever, and chills.
Stuart also said that several users have admitted to craving sweets, especially brown sugar.
Changes to a users personality include borrowing money, changes in their enthusiasm for school or work and increased secrecy about their activities.
“If they are speaking in code they might be up to something,” Stuart said. “If they are injecting you are going to see needles, spoons, bottle caps, and makeshift tourniquets. If they are smoking or snorting you might see razor blades, straws, lighters, aluminum foil in various shapes and styles. Packaging is typically in little bags or balloons.”
Missing prescription drugs, narcotics or mood stabilizers are also a telltale sign.
Users going through heroin withdrawals will experience a painful and uncomfortable symptoms including joint and muscle pain, grueling nausea, vomiting and cramping.
“It makes your limbs twitch so uncontrollably that it looks like your kicking at the air,” Stuart said. “Psychological cravings are very intense and they can last for months or even years.”
To combat the relapse rate, Anoka County has began prescribing Vivitrol prevent relapse to opioid dependence after detox. It is the first and only once-monthly, non-addictive medication that works by create a barrier that blocks opioid molecules from attaching to opioid receptors. However, before starting Vivitrol, users must be opioid-free for a minimum of 7-14 days to avoid sudden opioid withdrawal.
Officers have also started carrying Narcan, a nasal spray that works as an opiate antidote to blocks the effects of opioids and reverses an overdose.
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