by Dennis Dalman
Just as the use of methamphetamines began to decline in central Minnesota, the use of another highly dangerous drug, heroin, began to increase.
In just the past 18 months, there have been 20 heroin overdoses in the greater St. Cloud area, and seven of those were fatal, according to Dan Miller of the Sartell Police Department, an investigator for the Central Minnesota Violent Offenders Task Force. Miller said none of those deaths occurred in Sartell, although heroin usage can happen virtually anywhere.
In Minnesota, heroin use from 2010 to 2011 increased by a staggering 1,500 percent, and arrests for selling and/or using heroin were up by 95 percent, involving about 200 offenders, Miller noted.
It’s a stunning change from three or four years ago, when drug investigators didn’t hear the word “heroin” brought up very often in the course of their work.
Most heroin users are in the 18-30 age group, Miller said, although they can range from younger than that to senior citizens. The drug contributes to the alarming statistic that drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among people ages 35-59, topping car accidents as the leading cause of death in that age group, Miller noted.
What’s most worrisome is that addictions and overdoses are caused, increasingly, by heroin that is unusually “pure,” said Miller. The “purer” the drug, the more dangerous it is.
What is it?
Heroin is a pain-killing opiate derived from morphine, a substance which is produced by the opium poppy, cultivated in some areas of the world, most prominently Afghanistan where 90 percent of the world’s supply now originates. In street lingo, it’s often known as smack, skag or horse. It’s sold as a black-tar gummy blob or in powder that is white, tan or gray. Heroin can be injected intravenously, subcutaneously, into a muscle or snorted up the nose. It can also be taken as a suppository. Once inside the body, the heroin converts into morphine.
Heroin and morphine do have legitimate medical uses, such as in the control of very severe pain. But for decades, its illegitimate uses have hooked and destroyed people throughout the world.
When users take heroin, they get a rush of extreme euphoria that lasts just a few seconds, which then subsides into a pleasant sedated, floating feeling for several hours. The drug is highly addictive, and some addicts, Miller said, often say they were hooked from the very first time they tried it. A heroin overdose results in the shutdown of the respiratory system, causing suffocation.
Opiate addiction is extremely insidious, Miller said, because people can become addicted in a roundabout way. Some people start by getting “high” on a prescription pill called oxycontin or other opiate-containing substances. Not long ago, oxycontin pills were coated with a time-released substance so the pill’s potency would be released gradually, over time, in the body. Drug users would crush the pills before ingesting them so more potency would be released at once, causing the euphoria feeling they craved. Pharmaceutical companies got wise to that illegal practice and began putting a time-released substance throughout the pill, frustrating pill abusers.
It didn’t take long for some opiate pill poppers to realize heroin, at only about $30 for one-tenth of a gram, could get them two or three very powerful “highs.” The addictive habit then begins.
Miller said many heroin users, often called “junkies,” use a phrase called “chasing the dragon.” That is because they are always in pursuit of the initial high (the “dragon”) they experienced the first time they tried the drug.
Stopping a heroin habit is extremely difficult. The addict goes through an excruciating period of withdrawal that usually requires some kind of hospitalization. Withdrawal, which can last for many days, includes fevers, chills, loss of appetite, terrible joint and body aches, severe diarrhea, convulsions and hallucinations.
Many fatal or near-fatal overdoses of heroin are caused by the user having no idea of how “pure” a batch of heroin happens to be.
The word “purity” means how much heroin is in the lump, powder or liquid mixture that is ingested by the user. Miller said the purity of heroin in central Minnesota has increased dramatically in just the last couple of years. Users used to get heroin that was 30 percent pure or less in its various forms. But now, heroin can be as much as 90 percent pure, which is far more than most users can tolerate. As a result, addicts who are used to the lower purity of the drug will shoot up a far purer dose, which can cause almost instant death. Many addicts, in fact, are found dead with a needle still in their arms because that kind of pure heroin does its damage so quickly, shutting down the body’s autonomic system, ceasing the ability to breathe and causing suffocation.
When users buy heroin from a seller, most have no idea of how pure the substance is, and thus they end up playing an unwitting form of Russian roulette.
Those who sell (“push”) heroin are smooth and cynical operators, Miller noted, because they offer high-quality (purer) heroin for “reasonable” costs, thus addicting new users and assuring a future “customer base.”
As more people become addicted, sellers can then gradually up their prices, enriching themselves and other dealers while bringing misery and/or death to the addicts.
Sellers have also realized the advantage of smuggling and selling heroin rather than less-dangerous drugs like marijuana. For example, heroin sellers can reap about $1 million for a mere seven pounds of heroin. It would take at least 150 pounds of marijuana, a hard-to-conceal bulky volume of “grass,” to bring in $1 million to a seller.
Heroin is “big business.” It generates an estimated $55 billion worldwide in sales annually, Miller noted.
Heroin is often sold stuffed in little colored balloons, the same penny balloons available in candy stores. Addicts usually mix the substance in water and heat it, often in a spoon, before injecting it with a hypodermic needle. They can also grind the powder and snort it.
It only takes a slight amount to get the junkie’s goal – a euphoric “rush” followed by a prolonged “high.”
Addicts, of course, Miller said, tend to be desperate to the point they will do bad things they would normally never do, such as rob their parents, grandparents or anyone else.
If often starts with “robbing” medicine chests of opiate-based medications like oxycontin. Later, if the opiate addict goes beyond such prescription pills, he or she may resort to stealing, pawning or outright robbery to get the money to satisfy an ever-growing addiction.
Miller, who gives many public talks about the problem, recommends parents, grandparents and others lock up out of sight any opiate-based medications. He also encourages people to discard any drugs they no longer need at the drop-off boxes at the Stearns and/or Benton County sheriff’s departments. The road to heroin addiction, Miller emphasized, often starts with a dependence on such pilfered opiate pills.
Another weapon in the war against heroin use is education, Miller added. People should learn at least the basics about heroin and what an insidious, highly dangerous and lethally addictive drug it is.
Some of the symptoms that may appear in a heroin user are these: dilated pupils often the size of pin-pricks, drowsiness, lethargy, slurred speech, excessive sweating, shallow breathing, skin infections, mood swings, loss of appetite, extreme constipation and often – but not always – needle marks on arms.
Loved ones and friends concerned someone may be addicted should consult a medical official who can advise them on the best way to initiate an intervention to help the person.
The Central Minnesota Violent Offenders Task Force, for which Miller is an investigator, is the result of a merger of the former Central Minnesota Drug Task Force and the St. Cloud Metro Gang and Drug Task Force.
It has 22 full-time members and works in 15 counties.
The task force does constant investigations, networking, public education and recommends homicide charges are brought against those who provide heroin to people who end up dead because of taking heroin.
Miller believes a combination of strict enforcement and public education will go a long way toward ending the scourge of heroin in central Minnesota and elsewhere.