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Heroin hits home: In the Northland and across the US, heroin use is exploding

Heroin cases referred to St. Louis County Attorney's Office in Duluth1 / 4
Duluth police Lt. Steve Stracek holds an evidence bag containing a small package of heroin while talking about the drug’s growing use in the Northland and beyond. (Steve Kuchera / / 4
A sample of heroin seized by the Duluth Police Department. (Steve Kuchera / / 4
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It’s dangerous, it’s highly addictive and it’s everywhere.

That’s how local law enforcement officials are describing heroin. Virtually nonexistent in the Northland up until a few years ago, the drug has exploded onto the drug scene locally and nationally, leaving officials to face a challenge unlike any in recent memory.

“We look at it not only here in Duluth, but statewide, as the biggest threat we face right now,” said Duluth police Lt. Steve Stracek, who serves as commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force. “We’re seeing a growing user base every day.”

For the task force, which is composed of law enforcement agencies in St. Louis, Carlton, Douglas and Lake counties, heroin quickly has become the number one priority. As arrests and prosecutions of heroin users have increased rapidly, so have overdoses and emergency room visits.

St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman said the effects of heroin on the community have been almost hard to believe.

“This issue has caught my attention like no other drug problem in 12 years as sheriff,” he said. “Unlike some of the drugs we’ve seen before, kids are dying as a result of this one.”

Numbers skyrocketing

Law enforcement agencies have referred more heroin cases to the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office in Duluth early this year than they have in the past three years combined. The 111 cases sent to the office for prosecution through May 8 is a dramatic increase over the seven cases referred in all of 2011.

County Attorney Mark Rubin, who has been prosecuting cases since 1978, said he has never seen anything like it.

“We’d see some heroin cases, but they’d be the hardcore addicts,” Rubin said. “We’ve never had so many younger people experimenting and overdosing. I think people maybe had a greater fear of it before. I don’t know why it is, but people today don’t have that fear of taking something that’s so dangerous.”

Throughout St. Louis County, heroin-related cases went from just five in 2009 to 175 in 2013, with numbers trending upward again this year, according to data maintained by all law enforcement agencies in the county.

But heroin is not just a problem in Northeastern Minnesota. The rising number of overdoses and arrests here is emblematic of a larger problem that authorities are dealing with throughout Minnesota and across the United States.

Last month, local and federal authorities completed “Operation Exile,” dubbed the largest heroin trafficking crackdown in Minnesota history. The bust resulted in charges against more than 150 people in the Twin Cities, Rochester and Duluth areas.

More than 40 of those charges were in St. Louis County.

The sharp increase in heroin cases in the Northland has prompted law enforcement officials to publicly express concern and advocate for awareness and resources to combat the trend.

“Whether we’re talking about alcohol, marijuana or prescription medications, nothing has nearly the fatal consequences that heroin does,” Litman said. “It’s very unforgiving.”

Getting hooked

While heroin is relatively new to the drug scene in the Twin Ports, law enforcement officials say they’ve been combating similar substances for years.

Since the 1990s, cops say they’ve seen an increase in abuse of prescription painkillers. Often prescribed for minor injuries or chronic back pain, most people don’t realize just how addictive opiate-based painkillers can be, Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said.

“There are a lot of these drugs being dispensed, and it’s the opiates that move people into heroin,” Ramsay said. “People go to great lengths to get these prescription pills. … Then, what happens is heroin can be easier to get, and sometimes it’s less expensive, so they switch to that.”

It’s not just heroin that painkiller abusers turn to, authorities said, but it’s perhaps the most accessible drug right now.

Around 2010 and 2011, Stracek said, the Twin Ports saw a surge in opana, a powerful opioid that he described as “OxyContin on steroids.” That problem was essentially eradicated and many of the top distributers were sent to federal prison, he said. But then the drug of preference seemed to shift to heroin.

Meanwhile, authorities were also battling synthetic drugs while the Last Place on Earth was operating on Superior Street in downtown Duluth. Police have reported a sharp drop-off in synthetics cases since the store was shut down and owner Jim Carlson was convicted in federal court.

“In many cases, addicts will switch back and forth between whatever they can get,” Ramsay said. “If they can’t get heroin, they switch to meth. If they can’t get meth, they switch to whatever they can get their hands on. Heroin right now is what’s easy to get.”

A changing user base

While police are used to dealing with chronic drug offenders on the streets, officials say they’re finding a much different user base for heroin. The stereotypical users are still getting hooked, but so are people who are educated, hold steady jobs and have future aspirations beyond their next high.

“Our user demographic went from the typical street-level, narcotic-addicted folks to really young middle-class users who were digging in mom and dad’s medicine cabinet and started using some opiates,” Stracek said.

Authorities say younger people, particularly those in their late teens and early 20s, seem to be particularly susceptible to the drug. And it hits all socioeconomic groups.

“It’s everybody,” Ramsay said.

Police say heroin users start predominately with prescription pills but occasionally get hooked through other recreational drugs. Heroin is sometimes smoked or snorted, but hardcore users mostly inject the drug into their veins to get the greatest high, Stracek said. Once they try it, they’re hooked and want stronger doses.

“Once you’re addicted, there’s no going back,” he said.

Economics of heroin

Heroin consistency varies, but law enforcement officials say Minnesota’s supply is predominately brown heroin coming almost exclusively from Mexico. And it’s very pure, making it that much more dangerous.

The powder typically flows through bigger Midwest cities — Chicago, Detroit or Minneapolis — before it arrives in the Twin Ports, law enforcement experts say.

Locally, heroin sales present a case study in economics.

A gram of heroin sells goes for $300 to $400 on the streets in Duluth, Stracek said. Buying in smaller “user quantities” of about two-tenths of a gram can make that price go even higher.

It can be much cheaper in bigger cities, but sellers in the Twin Ports have less competition, and there’s the added danger of needing to transport the drugs, Stracek said.

“It’s a small group of folks that are controlling the market,” he said. “There’s a little more risk in getting it here, but with less competition, they can get more for it.”

Most of the heroin dealers in town aren’t Duluth residents, he said. They’re dealers from other Midwest cities that come here to make a quick buck and then leave town before law enforcement can catch up.

“A lot of the time, we see a rotation of sellers through a residence,” Stracek said. “You may have one guy here for a week selling heroin and crack. He’ll leave town and then someone new will come the following week and take up shop. So it’s hard to keep on those specific targets long enough to take them out.”

‘It’s everywhere’

Stracek said heroin has become available in neighborhoods and areas that typically haven’t been hotbeds for drugs.

“It’s everywhere,” he said. “We’ve had houses in the Hillside, in Lakeside, in Morgan Park, in Gary, in Proctor, out in the county. You name it.”

The Carlton County Attorney’s Office prosecuted just one heroin case in 2009. By 2011, there were nine cases. In 2012, the number jumped to 25.

Officials say it’s indicative of the fact that heroin has spread beyond the bigger cities to small towns and rural farmlands, including Carlton County, where the population is about one-sixth that of St. Louis County.

“I don’t think any place is immune to it,” Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake said. “It’s hitting everywhere.”

Lake noted that heroin frequently is transported through Carlton County as it’s transported from the Twin Cities to Duluth. But it also is being used in every corner of the county, she said.

“The last couple years, it’s definitely on the rise,” Lake said.

Heroin has slowly crept into Iron Range towns, too. St. Louis County Sheriff’s Sgt. Bob Tarr, who commands the Boundary Waters Drug Task Force, said he started seeing heroin come into the area around 2012.

But Tarr said heroin isn’t necessarily more of a problem than meth, prescription drugs or marijuana on the Iron Range. Very few dealers operate in the area — he estimates there’s about one dealer for every 10 in Duluth — so it’s easier to take them out, he said.

Still, Tarr expects that the problem will likely get worse before it gets better.

“Anytime you have a market for something, it’s going to expand, people are going to get addicted to it,” he said. “Our challenge is to try to keep it under control.”

Associated crimes

It’s not just the heroin that’s of concern to law enforcement officials. It’s also the property crimes that come along with it.

More than 40 percent of people arrested for drugs have a history of property crimes, Stracek said. It all boils down to the expense of heroin.

“If you become addicted to heroin, your choice is: I can buy something to eat, or I can buy or something to put in my arm,” Stracek said. “And it’s always going to be the something to put in your arm.”

To get the money for drugs and other living expenses, Stracek said users turn to property crimes. But, he said, most users don’t progress to the point of prowling cars or burglarizing homes.

“What you see on the front end of addiction is that these users have victimized their families,” Stracek said. “They steal from family members, steal from grandma’s bank account — things that are unnoticed or unreported for a period until it really goes downhill and they burn all those bridges.”

Rubin said the sharp increase in heroin cases and associated crimes has put a strain on the prosecutors in his office.

“We only have so many lawyers and the extra work just needs to be done,” he said. “We don’t pay overtime, so our prosecutors just absorb that extra work.”

Likewise, Rubin said, heroin has put an extra burden on Public Health and Human Services workers.

“With an increase in the presence of heroin, they’re seeing an increase in numbers of reported maltreatment and abuse,” he said. “That’s alarming. These little kids have it tough enough anyway in some of these homes, and now they’ve got that added component of heroin addicts in their presence.”

Breaking the cycle

In 2009 and 2010, the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force made just one arrest each year for heroin sales. That number swelled to 10 in 2011 and 34 in 2012. And, in 2013, it more than doubled to 70.

During that same five-year time period, arrests for marijuana sales dropped from 21 in 2009 to just seven in 2013. Meanwhile, methamphetamine arrests held steady, with 128 arrests in 2009 and 124 in 2013.

Stracek noted that arrest statistics could be somewhat influenced by a shift in focus for the task force. But, he said, resources are devoted to stopping the flow of drugs that are of the greatest concern.

“We’re trying to address or prioritize what we really look at as our biggest threat when it comes to public safety and health issues,” Stracek said. “Right now, as it has been for the past six months to a year, that is heroin.”

Officials say heroin is likely going through a cycle right now, as other drugs have every few years. But, unlike recent drugs such as opana and synthetics, stopping the flow of heroin might prove to be a lot trickier because of its nationwide availability.

“Heroin has stuck its fingers into every community,” Stracek said. “This has to be looked as a national threat. Everywhere in the country, heroin abuse is exploding.”