Anoka County responds to heroin opioid crisis

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.

The problem

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.”

The gateway

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.

The signs

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.

The plan

“We are seeing the bulk of ours coming directly out of Mexico and in the past we would see it come out of Chicago,” said Stuart. “We have become a hub.”

Due to the significant busts executed by the Anoka-Hennepin Narcotics and Violent Crimes Task Force, Chicago has notified Anoka County that the arrests being made here are impacting what is seen on the streets in Chicago.

The Task Force is comprised of officers from the Sheriff’s Office and the

Anoka, Blaine, Champlin, Fridley, Coon Rapids, Columbia Heights, Ramsey and Maple Grove police departments.

“They are typically seen as the model for the state of Minnesota and in the past 18 months or so they have had so many significant arrests and seizures that they will be up for some awards,” Stuart said. “They have had the single largest seizure in Minnesota history.”

The force has also targeted previously identified sources.

“We know who the bad guys are and we’re going after them,” he said. “More aggressively than we have in the past. We have much stronger tracking of our incidences. Our dogs are also getting called out a lot more often to do sniffs on traffic stops. We are trying to lock up dealers at a much more aggressive rate than in the past. A more aggressive third degree murder charge is also on the table for all parties caught dealing heroin.”

In addition to drug dealers, agencies are cracking down on rogue doctors who are unlawfully prescribing narcotics.

Stuart also said that parents need to be talking with their children about the dangers of drug use.

In a recent survey, 81 percent of middle school students and 67 percent of high school said they didn’t use drugs because they didn’t want to disappoint their parents.

“That is very powerful,” Stuart said. “The take away from this is that parents need to get in the game and talk to your kids. Make your expectations crystal clear. It doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal to have those talks with your kids but as demonstrated by their own admissions they are listening and they care about your opinion.

“Lock up or dispose of any medications in the house,” he added.

Currently, Anoka County has implemented the Prescription Drug Take Back initiative which is vital to public health. According to the 2009 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than 7 million Americans abuse prescription drugs. To date, the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office, along with its law enforcement partners, collected 15,000 pounds of unwanted prescription drugs.

Anoka County is also working with coaches within the various school districts as well as community organizations.

“What we know is that many times you can have youth that end up with a sports injury and are given a medication and pretty soon they are hooked and it spirals down from there,” said Stuart.

After the White House Drug Policy Director designated Hennepin, Anoka, Ramsey, Dakota and Washington counties as High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas on Oct. 13, Minnesota was approved to design plans to take on the production, distribution and chronic use of opioids and other drugs.

The HIDTA designation ensures that the state will have access to increased resources to clamp down on these pipelines of illegal drugs — particularly along the I-35 and I-94 corridors, said Andy Luger, U.S. attorney for Minnesota. Additionally, Minnesota will team up with Wisconsin.

“Everyone always thinks that it will not impact their life or that it is somebody else’s problem,” said Stuart. “We all need to understand that everyone of us can be impacted by this.”

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Compassion Action Network meetings are free of charge and open to the public.

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