Heroin addiction: it can happen to anyone

Tanner James Pap wanted to counsel drug addicts.

Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo (left), law enforcement officers, and former heroin users and their parents shared their stories at a Feb. 6 community forum at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Ramsey to make people aware that heroin use can impact anyone. Photo by Eric Hagen
Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo (left), law enforcement officers, and former heroin users and their parents shared their stories at a Feb. 6 community forum at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Ramsey to make people aware that heroin use can impact anyone. Photo by Eric Hagen

Nolan Caya had a good job working construction.

Will Connell’s mother was a high school teacher. His father was a police officer and frequently visited schools to talk about the D.A.R.E. program.

All three used heroin.

Their stories, shared Feb. 6 at Lord of Life Church in Ramsey, show that anyone can become addicted to and killed by heroin or other drugs, even legal prescription medication.

This was the second of three community forums hosted by Anoka County on the dangers of heroin use. The third and final forum is Thursday, Feb. 13 at Eagle Brook Church, 8498 Sunset Rd., in Spring Lake Park.

Tough love from family or frightening incidents led Caya and Connell to enter the Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge. Caya is three months into the 13-month program. Connell has been off heroin for more than three years.

But Pap died from a heroin overdose in his apartment on the University of Minnesota campus Nov. 9, 2012, when he was 21 years old.

His mother, Val Pap, doesn’t know if this was the first time her youngest son tried heroin. His family and friends never had any reason to believe he was on drugs.

Raised in a drug free home in Lino Lakes, Tanner graduated with honors from Centennial High School.

And he always hugged his mother and said he loved her, Pap recalled.

“We will never get to watch him graduate from college and start a career. We won’t get to watch him get married and start a family of his own. I will never get to experience another Tanner hug. We won’t get to see him enjoy the things he loved so much about life. He was cheated out of all these things. We were cheated out of all these things,” she said.

“Our lives have been forever changed. Heroin took it all away.”

At least 10 people died in Anoka County last year from a heroin overdose, but that number will likely climb as pending autopsy toxicology results are confirmed, according to Amanda Vickstrom of the Anoka County Attorney’s Office.

There were seven deaths in 2012, 13 in 2011, five in 2010 and seven in 2009, according to Detective Dan Douglas of the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office.

Hennepin County had its deadliest heroin year in 2013 with 54 confirmed deaths, up significantly from eight heroin deaths in 2010, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office reported.

Heroin recovered in the Twin Cities has tested at some of the highest potency levels in the nation. Douglas was involved in a drug raid at a northeast Minneapolis home as part of the Anoka-Hennepin Drug Task Force that recovered a pound-and-a-half of heroin, which at the time was the largest heroin seizure in Minnesota’s history. That block of heroin tested 93 percent pure.

“That pound-and-a-half would kill everybody in this room,” Douglas told the crowd of more than 200 people.

Prescription drugs a gateway to heroin

Painkiller addiction is a gateway to heroin use, according to law enforcement. Hydrocodone, Methadone, Oxycontin and Vicodinare are opiates, like heroin.

There were at least 25 opiate-related deaths in Anoka County in 2013, according to Vickstrom. A 15-year-old died of a Methadone overdose last year. Heroin overdose victims in recent years have been as young as 18 and as old as 57, Douglas said.

Partnership for a Drug Free America said approximately 2,500 teens each day use prescription drugs to get high for the first time. These pills are often easily found in a bathroom where there is usually an expectation of privacy, so that is where the drug abuse often takes place.

“What starts as use of a prescription painkiller can easily turn into a heroin addiction,” said Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart. “Law enforcement is working to get drugs off our streets, but parental and community involvement are essential in preventing drug accessibility and addiction. It’s a team effort.”

Law enforcement agencies have been holding Prescription Drug Take Back initiatives. In the past couple of years, more than 3,000 pounds of prescription medication has been collected in Anoka County alone, according to Stuart.

Authorities recommend keeping prescription painkillers locked up and unnecessary medication should be dropped off at one of six locations throughout Anoka County.

The drop-off sites are open during regular business hours at the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office in Andover, along with local police department headquarters in Blaine, Centennial Lakes, Columbia Heights, Fridley and St. Francis.

The warning signs

Staff and former drug abusers involved with the Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge have visited middle schools and high schools across Minnesota since 2006 to talk about the dangers of using drugs and alcohol. Last year they visited over 150 schools and spoke to more than 50,000 students, according to Adam Pederson, prevention specialist with Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge.

During the 2012-2013 school year, they found that 21 percent of students at Andover High School have used illegal drugs. Anoka High School’s percentage was 42 percent. Crossroads Alternative High School in Coon Rapids and Metro Heights Academy in Fridley were at 86 percent. The statewide average was 26 percent.

Almost everyone who had used illegal drugs said they had abused marijuana. Around 30 to 50 percent reported prescription medication abuse. One in four said they had tried ecstasy or other hallucinogens, and 3 percent had tried heroin.

The numbers show drug users are starting young; to discover drug abuse, parents and friends have to know what to watch for.

Some of the warning signs include lost interest in activities at home or in school, withdrawing from responsibilities, being verbally or physically abusive, lying, defiant of authority, unexplainable mood swings, drastic weight loss or gain, sloppiness in appearance, disappearance of money or prescription medication, and spending a lot of time in their rooms.

“The heroin of today does not discriminate,” Val Pap said.

“It makes no difference how smart you are, what type of house you live in, what kind of car you drive, or what type of career you have. It makes no difference how much money you have, or who your parents are, or how religious you are. It doesn’t matter what type of student you are or how popular you are,” she said.

Derrel Fisk, 20, grew up in Anoka, attending Wilson Elementary, Fred Moore Middle School and Anoka High School. He started using marijuana at the age of 14 to feel accepted but soon started taking painkillers from his family’s medicine cabinet. When those supplies ran out, he tried heroin and was addicted by the age of 16.

Fisk has been in treatment 12 times, overdosed 10 times, been incarcerated six times, and been civilly committed twice.

“I compromised every moral I had to get it,” he said.

Nolan Caya became a drug dealer shortly after he graduated in 2009 from Centennial High School. A cousin was selling 50 pounds of marijuana a week and wanted Caya to be a supplier. He sold every kind of drug. His cousin introduced him to a “Joshua” and they became roommates. Joshua introduced him to heroin.

After three years of using drugs, the 23-year-old Caya was about to get laid off from a construction job he loved. He was broke after spending $3,000 in two weeks on heroin. He was convicted of a felony fifth-degree drug possession charge.

Caya has been drug free since he entered substance abuse prevention program at Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge three months ago. He has read that addicts that stay clean for a full year have a 90 percent chance of staying sober. He hopes to go back to his construction job someday.

Eric Hagen is at [email protected]