St. Louis County law enforcement offices are partnering with federal officials for a two-month effort aimed at cracking down on heroin use, county police Chief Tim Fitch said Thursday.
"We have a heroin crisis in our community," Fitch said at a news conference featuring law enforcement agencies from around the area, including . It happened at the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy office near University City. He said that in the last 24 hours, several people at a hotel in St. Louis County had called law enforcement to say that they intended to inject themselves with a lethal dose of heroin. One said she felt suicidal and another person expressed a desire to get help.
"How do you turn your back on people like this? You can't," Fitch said.
Deaths linked to heroin increased from 54 to 60 between 2009 and 2010, Fitch said. So far this year, 18 heroin-related deaths have been reported. The majority of victims are white males between the ages of 25 and 30. They have been found dead at home, in hotel rooms and in vehicles. Most local users are suburban residents living in the western and southern parts of the county.
To combat the problem, Fitch said, his office and others will pursue a three-pronged approach in a campaign titled "Heroin: Not Even Once"—education, enforcement and treatment. The program represents a reallocation of resources and is not expected to cost anything.
County police will hold multiple community education sessions over the next two months aimed at informing local police, school resource officers, parents and students. Fitch said the drug is more prevalent than cocaine. Marijuana remains the drug that law enforcement officers in the county address most often.
It will pursue federal prosecution when possible. Fitch and Special Agent Harry Sommers, who heads the St. Louis division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, indicated that decisions on whether to prosecute people at the state or federal will be made on a case-by-case basis. Part of the campaign is aimed at identifying those who traffic in heroin. People will continue to have the opportunity to report information about traffic anonymously using the St. Louis Regional CrimeStoppers phone number.
Both said a possible shutdown of the federal government would not affect the program.
Sommers said heroin in the U.S. is primarily controlled by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations. The level of traffic rose beginning in 2008 when the growth of poppy—the plant used to manufacture the drug—doubled. Additionally, the purity of the drug has increased, from 1 percent to 10 percent in the 1970s to 30 percent to 90 percent today.
The drug's low cost—about $10 for a high that lasts two hours—and an increase in the ways it can be consumed are factors in the rise, Fitch said. Most deaths are tied to heroin injections, though the drug can also be smoked, snorted or inserted under the skin.
In conjunction with the program, local law enforcement agencies will receive cards containing information about treatment options that can be issued to drug offenders along with summonses, Fitch said. The cards are in the process of being printed. County police are partnering with Behavioral Health Response, an organization whose counselors staff a hotline that informs callers about local treatment options.
That group is funded by taxpayers, and the hotline is staffed around the clock, said Leslie Levin, a representative with the group.
"They're very sad stories of people who never intended to become drug addicts," Levin said during the news conference, referring to the calls the hotline receives. "They're no longer on Skid Row."
Fitch said the cost of treating someone for drug addiction represents a third of the cost it takes to incarcerate someone on drug charges. At the same time, he acknowledged that the success rate for treatment is low.
Fitch said after the news conference that the program will be evaluated on a quarterly basis. Officials will look at such indicators as whether heroin incidents reported to the medical examiner's office have declined.
Fitch said during the news conference that he recently had a conversation with someone who asked why the department cares about drug users.
"'These are your sons and daughters and brothers and sisters,'" Fitch said.