JEFFERSON CITY - As officials in Missouri rid the state of its methamphetamines, another- and some say more dangerous- drug has traveled to the forefront: heroin.
According to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, meth labs in Missouri have decreased from 1,960 labs in 2010 to 1,112 in 2011. However, almost 2,000 state residents are now entering Missouri drug rehab for heroin addiction every year.
The number of heroin related deaths throughout Missouri also continues to climb with almost 100 deaths combined in St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin counties.
"We are seeing the same trend with this heroin as we did with the meth," Detective Corey Mitchell of the Poplar Bluff police department said. "Every time we step up enforcement for one illicit drug and it declines, another illicit drug will take its place. It's predominantly in the major metropolitan areas on the east and west coast and it's slowly working its way into the center of the United States."
Mitchell said his department has seen 20 heroin cases this year and the age group varies from teenagers to adults in their 40s and 50s. This new heroin replaces the stigma of "shooting up" with easier forms such as inhalants or pills, attracting a younger demographic. "We're learning. We know that it's going to be a violent drug," Mitchell said.
The effects of heroin remain in the body for one to three hours. After this time, the user goes into a violent withdrawal period, vomiting and shaking for up to five hours. Mitchell said the fear of withdrawal side effects is why heroin has been in such high demand.
Mitchell said regular drug users believe their bodies can handle the same amount of heroin as methamphetamine or prescription drug doses. But those that believe this are the ones who end up overdosing. "This drug is one of the purest drugs out on the market and it's gotta be cut down to one to ten percent because, if you use it at 80 to 90 percent purity, it'll kill you," Mitchell said.
Mitchell said distributors are selling it in "buttons" or capsules for $20 in major metropolitan areas, such as St. Louis, Memphis and Nashville, and then selling them in smaller Missouri cities for $5 to $10.
To stop this possible epidemic, Mitchell said Poplar Bluff police department's first step is public awareness, primarily the education of parents and teenagers. "We need to make them aware of this so they don't get sucked in the culture," Mitchell said.
Mitchell said the department also has ongoing investigations and are working with the FBI to find people and make arrests. "We've got some of our major players identified and that's the farthest I'll go on that aspect," he said.
Heroin is not only a problem in Missouri but also across the nation. According to Michael's House Drug Rehab Center in California, there are more than 1.2 million “occasional” heroin users in the United States and over 200,000 people who could be classified as addicted to the drug.
In the past several years, heroin overdoses nationally have caused more deaths than traffic accidents. There are also more than 700,000 people in the U.S. who need heroin addiction treatment but are not receiving it.
"We're trying to get rid of it before it takes a foothold on the community because it's just not one person that suffers; it's the whole community," Mitchell said.
Heroin is not grown in the U.S. Typically, the poppy plant is imported from Southeast Asia and the Middle East. "This drug has taken a long route to get here but it's getting here and it's affecting a lot of people," Mitchell said.