Heroin surge in Cottage Grove area a growing concernOnce considered a predominantly urban scourge, heroin is appearing more regularly in Washington County, law enforcement officials say. And it has already had a lethal effect.
Once considered a predominantly urban scourge, heroin is appearing more regularly in Washington County, law enforcement officials say. And it has already had a lethal effect.
It’s a trend mirrored across the Twin Cities metropolitan area, where the availability of uncommonly pure heroin is leading to an increase in overdoses and deaths — including that of an 18-year-old Hastings High School student who died earlier this year after he ingested the drug that was purchased by friends.
“Heroin was always known as a heavy urban, inner-city problem — not something we expected to see in the suburbs,” said Craig Woolery, director of Public Safety for Cottage Grove, in a recent interview. “That’s what’s most surprising: you just wouldn’t expect to see heroin in the suburbs.”
Drugs like marijuana, methamphetamine and cocaine are still seen more commonly, Woolery said. Increasingly, however, law enforcement officials in the east metro are seeing heroin — believed to be sourced from Mexico — and the harmful effects that come with it.
In Cottage Grove last year, a teenage male died of a heroin overdose, officials said, and Cottage Grove police have found the drug and related paraphernalia on at least one student at Park High School. (No criminal charges have been filed yet.)
In Hastings, the city has seen five overdose deaths in the past six years, said Paul Schell, the city’s police chief. Non-lethal heroin-related overdoses total far higher, he said.
The incidents mark the reappearance of a drug that was largely off the radar of local law enforcement.
“It was probably three years ago that we really started seeing it coming back,” said Washington County sheriff’s Cmdr. Brian Mueller, who heads the county’s narcotics task force. In that timeframe, he said, the sheriff’s department has seen a rise in heroin purchases, seizures and overdoses.
“Prior to that,” he said, “we had not seen heroin at all.”
Both Woolery and Schnell said males in their late-teens and early-20s make up the majority of those they’re finding with the drug as its use increases.
The abuse of prescription medications like Oxycontin, Percocet and Vicodin are a gateway to heroin use, Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton said recently as the county rolled-out a new prescription drug take-back program, a measure intended to fight that growing problem.
Efforts like that have helped make it harder — and more expensive — to feed a prescription drug habit, law enforcement officials interviewed said. But it has also made heroin a cheaper, more attractive alternative.
“There’s no doubt,” Schnell said, that the uptick in heroin use in the area and across the metro is related to increased law enforcement efforts aimed at combating prescription drug abuse.
With Oxycontin pills selling for anywhere from $10 to $80, depending on the dosage, a $10, one-tenth gram baggie of heroin has become a more viable option for users of the drugs.
“The drug market is market-driven,” Schnell said. “You squeeze one side of the balloon and it’s going to expand in another.”
It can be a deadly price-driven decision, however. The purity of heroin in the Twin Cities — roughly 93 percent pure, Mueller says, versus an average of 54 percent across the rest of the country — can catch some users not accustomed to the drug by surprise. That can lead to overdoses, Woolery said, some deadly.
The challenge for law enforcement now is to raise awareness of the issue before heroin use in south Washington County and the surrounding area explodes, Woolery said.
“We’re concerned,” he said. “We want to make sure we don’t see it become a [bigger] problem.”