Heroin use on the rise, but not for students

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An increase in heroin use in parts of the metropolitan area this decade has police and public health officials on the offensive, but college students have seemingly remained apart from the trend.

Rates of heroin-related treatment admissions, emergency room visits, mortality and use by prisoners are all higher than what they were in 2000, which has prompted law enforcement agencies to call for greater education on the subject.

“Our purpose … was to simply cast some light on this,” said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek. “To say, ‘Whoa, time out, wait a minute. Let me show you what heroin looks like, let me show you what tar heroin looks like, let me show you how it’s wrapped and packaged, let me show you what powder heroin looks like … ‘ “

There were 22 reported heroin overdose deaths in the metro area from January through November last year; in 2008, there were 14 total, according to the Hennepin County and Anoka County sheriff’s offices.

The number of heroin-related admissions at Twin Cities treatment centers more than doubled between 2000 to 2008, making up 6.7 percent in 2008, according to a June 2009 report from the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Despite the overall trends, no significant increase in use has been identified in college students.

In fact, overall opiate use among Minnesota college students has remained relatively constant at .8 percent from 2007 to 2009, according to Boynton Health Service surveys.

A 2009 survey also found just 0.2 percent of full-time college students nationwide reported using heroin in the previous year.

“We’re not seeing, at least I’m not aware of us seeing, an increase in the number of heroin users,” said Dr. Ed Ehlinger, the director and chief health officer at Boynton. “College students always remain pretty low on those hard drugs because they know it would interfere with their education.”

Ken Winters, a University of Minnesota professor of psychiatry and researcher funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said that although college students are not using heroin excessively right now, the same factors that are increasing use among other groups could affect the statistics in the future.

He also said that student recreational use of prescription pain killers like OxyContin and Vicodin, which are less stigmatized than heroin, could lead some to cross over under the right conditions.

Despite the low numbers, the University offers resources to help students with addiction problems.

But Ehlinger cautioned students to not get involved in the first place.

“The risks of drug use and becoming addicted to different drugs are quite high,” he said. “Do you really want to take that risk and threaten your education?”

Overall trends

In the metro area as well as statewide, a number of changes in the availability, form, purity and price of heroin have caused increased alarm.

The majority of heroin in Minnesota is Mexican in origin, Stanek said.

“It is safe to say that when people are trying to establish a new market, they introduce the product at a high purity and low cost, and many people believe that’s what’s going on with heroin,” said Carol Falkowski of the Minnesota Department of Human Services’ Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division.

A transition to powder heroin, which can be smoked, has led to increased use because there is less of a stigma around inhaling than injecting, Stanek said. He also stressed that this could attract younger and less experienced drug users.

In a 2007 study, the Drug Enforcement Agency found Minneapolis to have some of the purest heroin in the country.

Additionally, Minneapolis had some of the lowest prices per milligram. One-tenth of a gram can be purchased for $50, Stanek said.

In order to curb the problem, police will continue with strict enforcement and attempts to educate the public.

“All that goes toward the greater good, which is trying to prevent these unnecessary and tragic deaths of young people,” Stanek said. “You know, there are other ways you can die, but this isn’t one of them that should be acceptable.”