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'We're all paying:' Heroin spreads misery in US

By Nigel Duara

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, April 5 2014 6:06 p.m. MDT

It was the third such forum held over two weeks in Anoka County, which encompasses 440 square miles of urban neighborhoods, rural homesteads and suburban centers that are home to nearly 340,000 souls. Since 1999, 55 Anoka County residents have died from heroin-related causes. Only one other Minnesota county reported more heroin-related deaths — 58 — and it has a population three-and-a-half times greater than Anoka's.

In 2009, when Douglas began supervising a drug task force, authorities were focused on stamping out meth labs. Heroin, with its dark and dirty image, just wasn't a concern. Then investigators noticed a climb in pharmacy robberies and started finding Percocet and OxyContin during routine marijuana busts.

As prescription drug abuse rose, so, too, did federal and state crackdowns aimed at shutting down pill mills and increasing tracking of prescriptions and pharmacy-hopping pill seekers. Users turned to heroin.

"It hit us in the face in the form of dead bodies," says Douglas. "We didn't know how bad it was until it was too late here in our community."

Douglas says authorities are doing what they can: educating doctors about the dangers of overprescribing painkillers, holding events where residents can dispose of prescription opiates, and aggressively trying to get drugs off the street. But, he says, "law enforcement cannot do this alone."

The idea for the forums came not from police but rather from Pap, a third-grade teacher whose youngest son died of a heroin overdose.

Tanner was an athlete who graduated from high school with honors. In the fall of 2012, he was pursuing a psychology degree at the University of Minnesota, and dreamed of becoming a drug counselor. He had not, to his mother's knowledge, ever used drugs, and certainly not heroin.

Then one day Tanner's roommates found the 21-year-old unconscious in his bedroom.

Amid her grief, Pap realized something needed to be done to educate others. She met with county officials, and the community forums began soon after. At each, Pap shared her family's story.

"Our lives have been forever changed. Heroin took it all away," she told the crowd in Spring Lake Park.

Douglas says most heroin-related deaths he has seen involve victims who struggled with the drug for years. The detective usually tries to shield his own boys, ages 7 and 11, from what he sees on the job. But after meeting parents like Pap, Douglas shared his heroin presentation with his oldest son — complete with the sobering pictures.

"Could I still be blindsided? Absolutely," he says. "But it's not going to be for lack of information on my part. ... I don't want to scare my kid. I don't want to scar my kid. But I sure as hell don't want to bury him."

IN OHIO: OD ANTIDOTE HELPS SAVE SOME

Brakes screech. The hospital door flies open. A panicked voice shouts: "Help my friend!" Medical technicians race outside with a gurney. An unconscious young man is lifted aboard, and the race is on to stop another heroin user from dying.

It's known as a "drive-up, drop-off," and it's happened repeatedly at Ohio's Fort Hamilton Hospital. The staff's quick response and a dose of naloxone, an opiate-reversing drug, bring most patients back. But not all. Some are put on ventilators. A few never revive.

"We've certainly had our share of deaths," says Dr. Marcus Romanello, head of the ER. "At least five died that I am acutely aware of ... because I personally cared for them."

Romanello joined the hospital about two years ago, just as the rise of heroin was becoming noticeable in Hamilton, a blue-collar city of 60,000 people. Now it seems to be reaching into nearly every part of daily life.

"If you stood next to somebody and just started a conversation about heroin, you'd hear: 'Oh yeah, my nephew's on heroin. My next-door neighbor's on heroin. My daughter's on heroin,'" says Candy Murray Abbott, who helped her own 27-year-old son through withdrawal.

Abbott and childhood friend Tammie Norris, whose daughter was also a heroin user, decided last year to bring attention to the problem in their hometown, using Facebook to organize poster-waving demonstrations by everyone from recovering addicts to parents and grandparents of children who died of overdoses.

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