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Experts: Heroin Is A Public Health Crisis

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) --In the aftermath of the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, some experts say the heroin problem is now an epidemic -- both nationally and here in Minnesota.

Hoffman was found dead in his New York City apartment over the weekend. Reports say he was found with a needle in his arm and bags of heroin discovered near his body.

"We can't overshadow the fact that there is a public health crisis that is raging across this country. Scenarios like this are playing out in families and communities with alarming regularity and increased frequency," Scott Hesseltine, operations director at Hazelden Treatment Center, said.

Dr. Joseph Lee has seen it firsthand at Hazelden's youth campus in Plymouth, where almost half of the patients are addicted to opiates, up from 10 percent 10 years ago.

"When parents and families hear celebrities overdosing on heroin, the story seems so far away from home, and people need to realize the story is actually in our homes and in our neighborhoods," he said. "There are thousands of Minnesotans right now abusing prescription medications and heroin," he said, "and they desperately need to get help."

Hesseltine says they are seeing record numbers of people die from overdose.

"The Centers for Disease Control has classified drug overdose as an epidemic," he said. "Some people progress into addiction like this very innocently. They may have a sports injury or have dental work done, and because of the very strong and highly reinforcing nature of these drugs on the pleasure centers of the brain, it's very easy for someone to slip into addiction."

Heroin Is A Public Health Crisis

Although Hoffman was reportedly found with bags of heroin and syringes, the drug is also available to snort and ingest. And the path to addiction often starts more innocently, with a prescription for Percocet, Vicodin or other opiates.

"What we're seeing is that when they no longer can get access to prescription pain killers, then they turn to heroin," said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek. "It's opiate based, and in some cases it's cheaper than trying to get prescription pain pills."

In Hennepin County, it's having deadly consequences, with heroin overdoses rising from 8 deaths in 2010 to 54 last year.

Deaths by overdose driven by the prescription opiates have eclipsed death by car accidents in this country. Hesseltine also said the move from opiate addiction into full-blown heroin addiction can be very fast. Someone can start taking medicine for a toothache and become addicted to the pain medication. When the medications are gone, some turn to heroin, which is easier to get and cheaper.

So what can parents do? For starters, clean out the family medicine cabinet.

"All of us save medication for a rainy day when we shouldn't," Lee said.  "All of us ask for quick fixes when we have various injuries. The medical establishment doesn't have a good system to track who's prescribing what. So we have a problem and we're all involved."

Hesseltine agrees.

"What I've seen is it starts with the medicine cabinet at home, whether it's yours or a friend's, where there's easy access to these medicines," he said. "From there very quickly, someone progresses into non-medical uses of these pills and what happens is they're expensive, they're hard to find, and heroin is a much cheaper, readily available alternative. What we're seeing today is the purity of heroin is at unprecedented levels."

Hesseltine said the solution is not simple, but people can start by making sure that old medications are properly discarded.

"Medicine in the medicine cabinet can be extremely dangerous. A lot of times people may have leftover pills from a procedure they had or surgery or an injury and it's really important to dispose of those appropriately," he said.

Lee says his program now treats opiate addiction differently than it did before, mixing counseling and treatment with alternate medicines to catch addicts before a deadly overdose.

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