Overdose deaths put heroin use in the spotlight (full version)

by Olivia Koester, ECM Publishers

Kim Iverson can picture Jake Schmaus, her son’s best friend, over for a sleepover when he was a boy.

Her husband coached Robert McCullough in youth football many years ago.

Although she can remember Schmaus and McCullough as lively little kids, a fresher image might be their funerals.

Drug forum featured several perspectives.
Drug forum featured several perspectives.

Both boys lost their lives this year after overdosing on heroin, McCullough most recently Oct. 27.

Heroin use is exploding in the Twin Cities. Here in Sherburne County, there were 11 heroin overdose deaths in 2012. Three of them happened in Elk River. Earlier this month, Elk River Police responded to a heroin overdose, and the individual was transported to a hospital not once but twice.

Iverson and other parents, educators and community members in the St. Francis School District have decided that enough is enough, organizing two community forums to address the drug’s prevalence in northern Anoka County.

Iverson coordinated the first, held Nov. 11 at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in East Bethel.

Approximately 200 people flooded the sanctuary Monday night to learn more about local heroin abuse.

Opiate use and abuse

National drug abuse expert Carol Falkowski, former drug abuse strategy officer of the Minnesota Department of Human Services and director of research communications at the Hazelden Foundation, taught attendees about the dangers of heroin and other drugs.

Heroin is in the opiate family, drugs derived from the poppy plant.

Discovered around 350 B.C., opiates have long been used to relieve pain; they dull the senses, disabling the brain’s prefrontal cortex, or decision-making center.

Although opiates are ancient, heroin isn’t making a comeback in the Twin Cities.

“This is unprecedented,” Falkowski said of heroin use, overdoses and people seeking treatment in Minnesota, all on the rise in the last few years.

National drug abuse expert Carol Falkowski addressed the crowd at a recent forum on heroin.
National drug abuse expert Carol Falkowski addressed the crowd at a recent forum on heroin.

In Anoka County, there have been 21 heroin-related deaths this year; last year, there were four, Rev. Dan Nordin said before the forum started.

Young men between the ages of 18 and 24 are most at risk, Falkowski said.

Highly addictive, many people progress from prescription opiates – Vicodin, OxyContin, etc. – to heroin.

Heroin is cheaper than prescription medication, anywhere from $10 to $40 for one dosage unit, Falkowski said, leading some to abandon their doctor’s note and seek heroin instead.

Traveling up from Mexico, heroin in the Twin Cities is extremely pure and incredibly cheap, according to Falkowski.

Most start smoking and snorting the drug and progress to injecting it.

Just a text message away

Many have a stereotype for drug users. But there isn’t one, Falkowski insists.

“It’s not necessarily some other kid – it’s probably your kid,” she said.

As technology continues to grow and change, people don’t have to travel to some shady part of town to pick up drugs, Falkowski said. They can meet a dealer anywhere, communicating online or on their cell phones, she said.

“It is literally just a text message away,” Falkowski said.

One of the evening’s five panelists, Laura Moore, a Fridley resident who lost her son to heroin, confirmed this notion.

Moore’s 25-year-old son Nick, never a habitual drug user, was studying for his master’s degree in bioengineering at the University of Minnesota when he overdosed in 2012.

“We as his family are trying to figure out how to navigate a world without Nick,” Moore said, bursting into tears during the forum.

An avid rugby player, Nick injured his shoulder at a tournament and he reached out for heroin to dull the pain, communicating with a dealer via text message.

His sister found the text messages and the family has been trying to prosecute the dealer ever since, but the county attorney’s office maintains that there is not enough evidence to prosecute, Moore said.

Falkowski and the five panelists – Moore; St. Francis Police Chief Jeff Harapat; David Ettesvold, a drug prevention specialist at North High School in North St. Paul; Traci Gilbert, a member of the newly formed St. Francis Community for Drug Awareness committee; and Bobbi Hume, assistant principal at St. Francis Middle School – urged parents to keep a close eye on their children, monitoring their text messages, social media pages and applications, like Snapchat.

Parent responsibilities

In addition to vigilantly monitoring kids and their technology, parents can take further steps to try and keep their children out of trouble.

“Acknowledge your child’s positive assets, and do it everyday,” Falkowski said.

On the flip side, it’s tempting to put down drug users in conversation with your child, but it’s actually counterproductive, according to Falkowski. If a child hears you disparaging behavior in which friends or himself or herself are already engaging, he or she likely won’t feel comfortable talking to you in the future, even when they need help, Falkowski said.

Parents need to remember that they set an example, she said. For instance, if mom or dad repeatedly grabs a beer after work and says, “Boy, did my day suck!” kids will take away the message that alcohol is the remedy to a bad day.

Parents of drug users should not be afraid to get help when they need it, Falkowski said. There are warning signs parents can look for that may indicate addiction, but ultimately, it’s a disease and parents aren’t expected to diagnose other diseases, like depression or high blood pressure; they should get help before they are in over their heads, according to Falkowski.

If you come across someone who is breathing slowing, cannot be awakened, is making a gurgling or snoring sound and has gray or blue skin, he or she may have overdosed.

Call 911 immediately and administer mouth-to-mouth.

Lawmen field questions

Many questions were thrown at Harapat throughout the evening: What happened to Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE)? Can you bring it back? Are kids still “going down” to Minneapolis for heroin, or can they get it in the suburbs?

Harapat cited troubled economic times in his answers to many of the audience’s questions.

“I’m struggling to keep officers in the seats of cars,” he said, mentioning the cost of the DARE program and the drug dog the department no longer has.

He is looking into non-trademarked educational programs.

According to multiple studies, DARE is an ineffective program anyway, Falkowski said. Effective programs promote the same messages in school, at home and in the wider community, she said.

Harapat said he believes most people still travel to Minneapolis to get drugs, but if someone was dealing in St. Francis, it “wouldn’t shock me.”

A group of parents and community members banded together in early October to create a nonprofit organization to combat drug use in St. Francis and the surrounding areas.

“The heroin epidemic has shaken our community,” Gilbert said, speaking for the committee at the forum Nov. 11.

Not only is heroin tearing apart the community emotionally with the loss of so much young life, there is an economic price tag, too, she said.

The committee’s mantra is “drugs erase dreams.”

And it’s true. Schmaus and McCullough will never see their dreams realized, gone at 21 and 20, respectively.