Kim Norvell, St. Joseph News-Press, Mo.
As addictions to pain pills increase, so does an addiction to what officials say is a cheaper and often more convenient illicit drug.
Heroin use is on the rise nationally, as well as statewide, with the majority of drug use occurring in St. Louis and its surrounding counties. Capt. Mike Donaldson of the Buchanan County Drug Strike Force said Northwest Missouri has also seen an upward trend in heroin use.
Heroin use is more prevalent now than it has been in the past, he said.
Mr. Donaldson said the trend has been increasing in Buchanan County over the past five years, but the first 11 months in 2011 saw the most ever. About three percent of all Strike Force cases worked were either delivery or possession of heroin.
He said that seemingly low percentage is skewed, as the use rate is much higher than the arrest rate on any type of drug case. He also said it depends on the type of markets the Strike Force informants can lead officers to, and the amount and type of drugs found in major busts.
Mr. Donaldson said he believes the increase in heroin use is coupled with an increase in addictions to powerful pain relievers. Medicines such as morphine, codeine and oxycodone are opiate derivatives, just like heroin.
Drug trafficking organizations are bringing more heroin across the border, making it easier and sometimes even cheaper to buy heroin than pain pills, he said.
According to the 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment, created by the U.S. Department of Justice, primary heroin transportation routes from Mexico go through Kansas on Interstate 35 and into Northwest Missouri, before continuing up north into Iowa and Minnesota. Another primary route goes directly through St. Louis and its surrounding counties and into Chicago.
Heroin is described as a highly addictive drug, with about 23 percent of users becoming dependent. It is easily overdosed, with an increase of heroin-related deaths being reported in Missouri steadily over the past five years.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services reported 46 heroin-related deaths in 2005, with that number increasing to 167 in 2009, with the highest rates of death in the eastern region of the state.
According to statistics provided by the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, there were 2,846 individuals in Missouri who were admitted to substance treatment programs for a primary substance abuse problem of heroin. For Northwest Missouri, the number was 112.
Mr. Donaldson said the Strike Force does not record statistics specifically on heroin use for Buchanan County, as the hospital does not collect data on drug tests for patients. It also becomes an issue with the Health Information Privacy Act, because hospitals cannot disclose patient information and drug use, he said.