Anoka County officials discuss heroin epidemic, response - KMSP-TV

Anoka County officials discuss heroin epidemic, response

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New figures show heroin-related deaths in the Twin Cities are still climbing, with at least 10 deaths in Anoka County alone. With that number expected to climb, Leah Beno spoke with officials about the response.

Starting this week on Tuesday, authorities in Anoka County will hold community forums to educate the public about heroin and other opiates, including prescription painkillers.

Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart explained that although it's commonly known that heroin is a dangerous and addictive drug, the opiates found in the Twin Cities are among the purest in the nation -- and that makes taking the drug even more risky.

"We have seen that in northern Hennepin County and into Anoka County, we're seeing some of the purest heroin in the nation," he said. "Right now, with the potency levels being higher than 90 percent, it's become a very alarming pattern for us because people are dying from it."

Stuart said even for first-time users, getting high on heroin can be the last mistake they make.

When asked why the Twin Cities has especially pure heroin, Stuart said the nature of the local market -- being largely untapped -- has dealers bringing in high-potency drugs to get more people hooked as quickly as they can.

Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo has been applying Minnesota's law that can levies third-degree murder charges against anyone who supplies drugs that result in an overdose.

"Even if you don't intend to cause the death … you will be charged with third-degree murder," he warned.

Palumbo added that he isn't the only prosecutor in the metro area applying those laws. In fact, he says it is a way to help law enforcement get to the dealers themselves.

"If you pass this stuff on the street, and it causes death, you're going to be held responsible," he said.

Yet as with any criminal case, Palumbo acknowledges that gathering proof can be difficult. However, his office is partnering with law enforcement agencies and getting more tech-savvy to track down the dealers, often pulling records from cellular devices to find the trail.

"Tie the dealer with the victim, and we will go after them," he affirmed.

While law enforcement and prosecutors working to bring down the dealers, Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah is working to increase public awareness through forums.

"When you sit across the table from a family who has lost their child to heroin, you recognize it could happen to anyone," she explained. "It could be the child next door. It's the star athlete, the person who's active in choir, the straight-A student. It doesn't matter what family they come from, whether rich or poor, a stable family environment or not. Heroin does not discriminate."

Sivarajah said the forum intends to share information on what to look for as well as stories from recovering addicts and families who have lost a loved one to an overdose.

The first forum was set for Tuesday at Eagle Brook Church in Lino Lakes between 7 and 9 p.m., but two others will take place in February. More information can be found online here.

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