Heroin is thought to be responsible for seven overdose deaths in Minnesota in recent weeks, and officials are alarmed about the sudden spike.
“Drugs are killing people across the state, causing a big burden in society for adults and especially youth,” Brian Marquart, a statewide gang and drug coordinator with Office of Justice Programs, said in a news release Wednesday.
Investigators believe the drug responsible is circulating now, and may also be laced with another narcotic, according to the Department of Public Safety.
In addition to the seven deaths, another dozen people have suffered non-fatal overdoses.
The recent cases happened in north-central Minnesota, including Hibbing, Virginia, Bemidji, Detroit Lakes, Cass Lake, Dillworth, Marble, Beltrami County and Mille Lacs County. Officials held a press conference Wednesday to talk about the recent cases.
But the problem of heroin is not only in that area.
Just in the past week:
- The Duluth Police Department arrested a 27-year-old after finding a large plastic baggie with 57 heroin packages (weighing more than 30 grams) while executing a search warrant.
- An Austin man appeared in court on charges of third-degree murder, in connection with the death of another man found unconscious on his bathroom floor in December with a hypodermic needle nearby, ABC 6 reports.
- And four people were arrested in the Fargo-Moorhead area in connection with three suspected overdose deaths.
The department says heroin seizures in Minnesota by Violent Crime Enforcement Teams last year totaled 82,120 doses – that's more than double what was taken in 2011.
In Minnesota, a drug dealer whose customer dies of an overdose can be charged with third-degree murder. A number of states are more frequently charging drug dealers when their customers die of an overdose, Alternet reported last year.
ABC's "20/20" ran an entire episode last week concerning the heroin "breaking point" in America, following young drug users trying to get clean. You can watch the full episode here (if you have a log-in, it's available now; if not, the full episode should be up by this weekend.)
Heroin and prescription pain killers
According to the CDC, heroin use has increased among both men and women of most age groups, and of all income levels. Groups with historically low usage rates – including women, the privately insured, and people with higher incomes – are experiencing some of the greatest increases.
Among people ages 18-25, heroin usage has more than doubled in the past decade.
And it's led to more deaths. The rate of fatal heroin-related overdoses nearly quadrupled from 2002-2013, CDC figures show.
So what's causing the jump in heroin use?
Many health experts blame, at least partially, prescription painkillers.
Director Nora Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse describes it as a “serious public health problem.”
Volkow says stats show 52 million people have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons in their lifetimes. But the problem can then turn more serious, as Volkow points out, with users sometimes becoming addicted.
The CDC says more than 45 percent of people who used heroin were also addicted to prescription painkillers.
Dr. Edward Ehlinger, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, said in the news release that the state's drug abuse problems often start "with inappropriate use of prescription opioid pain relievers.”
The CDC has recognized the issue, and on Tuesday issued new recommendations for doctors considering prescribing opioids to patients with chronic pain. It includes only prescribing the smallest effective dose, and closely monitoring patients who use them.
Ehlinger called the new guidelines "a good example of an approach that can help us more effectively treat pain, promote health and reduce harms.”