With hundreds of people in the greater St. Louis region dying each year from heroin overdoses, the St. Louis County Police Department is launching a new education initiative to raise public awareness of the drug's dangers.
The department's new heroin initiative Detective Casey Lambert said her role is to talk to people across the county, of all ages, about heroin - what it does to the body, why it's so dangerous, and how to recognize signs of addiction.
“I'm not trying to scare anybody. I'm not trying to sit here and be your mom or dad and say ‘Don't do drugs,’ but unfortunately, heroin is something that is killing our society and something needs to be done about it,” Lambert said.
She will give presentations at public events and connect people with resources. She’ll also coordinate a media campaign targeted at those most at risk. Lambert’s role complements the work of the County Police's drug unit, as well as an existing collaboration with a multi-jurisdictional task force, the National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse-St. Louis Area (which recently created an anti-heroin ad to run locally during the Super Bowl), the Health Department and other treatment and advocacy groups.
"We just want to get it out there to everyone that it's a dangerous drug,” she said. “It's something you can't even try once. Once is all it takes to get addicted or even die from it.”
Unfortunately, Lambert said, heroin is becoming easier to obtain and “there’s a lot more of it than we even thought.” Most of the St. Louis area’s heroin comes from Mexico, though most of the world’s supply comes out of Afghanistan.
While the County Police are “fighting the fight” against the drug, St. Louis County alone has seen a 90 percent increase in heroin-related deaths since 2007, according to NCADA-St. Louis Area. In each of the last three years, the county had at least 90 overdose deaths.
"Since the early 2000's we've had close to over 2,500 people die in just the St. Louis [multi-county] area because of this,” Lambert said. “So take a high school, take two high schools, and just blow it up. And that's how many people this drug's killing."
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports the St. Louis metropolitan statistical area saw 236 heroin-related deaths in 2013.
Part of the problem, Lambert said, is how easily someone can overdose the first time they use heroin.
“Heroin is a depressant, so when you inject it or inhale it or smoke it, it gets to your brain and it slows down your heart rate, it slows down your blood pressure, and it slows down your breathing," she said. "Eventually, that's what causes you to overdose is when it slows down your breathing so much, you stop breathing. That usually happens between two and five minutes from the consumption of the drug. However, you never know if you're going to overdose, so it's not something you can predict."
Teens at risk
Even with so many deaths, Lambert said most people don’t know the signs of heroin addiction – or who is most at risk.
"It's 14- to -15-year-olds, it's young kids getting their hands on this," Lambert said. "It's people with bright futures ahead of them. They've been on the honor roll, straight A's, with their church youth groups, the MVP of a basketball team."
Many young people are turning to heroin after becoming addicted to prescription painkillers, which have a similar chemical make-up and effect, she said. According to many of the users she’s interviewed, some teens are being turned on to the drugs from their friends.
“They were going to study for finals and their friend said, ‘If you take this medicine, it will help you stay up’ or ‘It will help you study,’ and it happens to be prescription painkillers,” she said. “So they start taking it, and they like the way it makes them feel or they like the way their body reacts…and they get addicted to it.”
But soon that supply will run out and teens will often turn to heroin, Lambert said. In fact, progress against prescription drug abuse that has made access more difficult is in some ways contributing to teens turning to the highly addictive heroin.
Additionally, Lambert said heroin can now be smoked, snorted or injected, so “if you’re afraid of needles, you can still do this drug.”
Part of the problem, Lambert said, is that these prescription painkillers are prescribed legally for a variety of real ailments. But often people hold on to unfinished prescriptions, making them readily accessible to young people.
Lambert also said she supports Missouri creating a prescription drug monitoring program, which would track who gets these drugs to prevent so-called “doctor-shopping” for prescriptions. Several attempts at creating such a program in Missouri have died in the legislature.
What to look for
Because these prescription painkillers that are often the gateway to heroin are so common, Lambert said heroin addiction is “everywhere.” Heroin is neither a “rich drug” or “poor drug,” and it’s used as much in the suburbs as the inner city, Lambert said.
“One of the main things we talk about [in presentations] is what to look for,” Lambert said. “You might not even know your child or grandchild is addicted to heroin or using it, but there are key factors to look for to tell if someone is using.”
Some common signs include: missing spoons, candles, and syringes; repeated lies; and finding little plastic baggies around the house.
Lambert said it is important to help a heroin addict in their recovery, because “once you become addicted to heroin, it will be a battle your whole life.” Relapses are common.
“It's something you can't be ashamed of,” Lambert said. “If your child is addicted to heroin, it’s an illness, it’s something that, no matter how many users I’ve talked to, they've never told me, you know, they were glad they'd taken the drug. They all regret it, so it's just something you have to help them with.”
Considering addiction an illness is a change for some people, including many in law enforcement, Lambert said.
“I was a road officer for several years and I made heroin arrests, I’ve made drug arrests, and one thing that I've known is those users come back and they come back to the same place because they want the next high, so it's just a vicious circle we're working,” she said. “Now if I could take these people and take them to go get help and sign them in somewhere, how much more would that help?”
For that reason, Lambert hopes people won’t be worried about coming to her - a police detective – for guidance on getting their loved one help for their addiction.
“I'm not out there to get anybody in trouble,” she said. “I’m out there strictly just to provide education, give them help that they can't seek themselves, and help them recover.”