Hennepin County waging battle against heroin


Heroin-related deaths totaled 56 in 2013, up from 28 deaths 2012, making 2013 the deadliest year for heroin in Hennepin County.

With the high-profile death of acclaimed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and four local heroin-related deaths in January 2014 alone, the year started off with high anxiety about the spread of heroin in Minneapolis.

Forty-one percent of treatment admissions for heroin in Minneapolis and St. Paul in 2012 were for people between the ages of 18 and 25, according to the Minnesota Drug Abuse Trends report. That number decreased to 39 percent in 2013, but the age group remains the largest demographic of heroin users. 

The Hennepin County Sherriff’s Office is taking its own measures to fight the rise of heroin. Partnering with other law enforcement officials, Sheriff Rich Stanek collected seven tons of unwanted medications for proper disposal over the past year in an attempt to reduce the supply of painkillers that can be illegally sold.

Stanek also backed state Sen. Chris Eaton’s (DFL-Brooklyn Center) bill that would allow law enforcement officials to carry and administer naloxone, the antidote to a heroin overdose.

Through heroin prevention meetings, the sheriff talks with parents and other community members about how to recognize and prevent drug use.

The popularity of heroin among 18- to 25-year-olds reflects a national trend, according to Carol Falkowski, the founder of Drug Abuse Dialogues, producer of the yearly drug trends report. “Drug abuse is most prevalent in this age group,” she said.

Among adolescents, however, heroin is less of a concern. The 2013 Minnesota Student Survey reported that 99 percent of 9th and 11th graders statewide had never used heroin.

Many heroin users progress to heroin from other drugs, especially painkillers. Painkiller prescriptions totaled to about 210 million in 2010, constituting what Falkowski said she considers an over-prescription of the drugs.

“There’s been an increase in opiate prescription meds over the past 30 years to the point now where it’s exploded,” said Dustin Chapman of Fairview Behavioral Services. “Opiates were once prescribed with caution, mostly just for surgeries. When new medications came out that were labeled as not addictive, they were prescribed more.”

About 64 percent of heroin patients in treatment programs took the drug by injection in 2013, but the modern realities of injection have changed from 1980s stereotypes. “Because heroin is more pure, smoking and inhaling it are safer,” Falkowski said. “AIDS is no longer a death sentence with modern medicine, so the phobia of injection isn’t there as much.”

AIDS is also becoming less of a threat with heroin because needle exchange programs make it easier and safer for people to use needles, Chapman said. “Some people just don’t like needles, but they graduate to them.”

Education is crucial to preventing heroin use among adolescents, Chapman said, adding he believes drug awareness and education should be taught to students before they enter middle school. “If marijuana ever becomes legalized here it should become mandatory,” he said.

Fairview Behavioral Services is just one of the many places that offers treatment for heroin abuse in Minneapolis to both adults and adolescents. Most treatment programs require an assessment of patients before they are admitted.

“Asking a friend to get an assessment can be a non-threatening approach for people trying to help someone they think is using heroin,” Chapman said. “If they don’t agree right away, don’t give up. You have to maintain the effort.”

Alyssa Bluhm is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota.