Tim Fitch, chief of the St. Louis County Police Department, stood up at a press conference this morning and recounted the words of a local heroin user who was describing the very first time he ingested it: "I saw God."
That user, Fitch says, needed to see God "again and again and again," so he became a junkie. And his story is hardly unique in St. Louis, or across the nation for that matter, as heroin use has escalated into one of the country's leading drug epidemics.
There were 60 heroin-related deaths in St. Louis County last year; since 2007, the number of fatal heroin overdoses in the region has more than doubled. The drug, which only costs about 10 dollars for a two-hour high, is now more prevalent than cocaine, amounting to 46 drug busts in the county. Fitch calls the situation a "crisis."
"We're finding users dead in their homes, inside their hotel rooms, even in parking lots of the neighborhood pharmacy with syringes hanging out of their arm," he says.
The St. Louis Area Police Chiefs' Association organized the press conference to lay out a new approach to tackling the issue. But while obviously well-intended, that new strategy doesn't appear to be a panacea.
As detailed by Fitch, the newly conceived approach uses three (obvious) tactics: education, enforcement and treatment.
The spike in heroin is attributable to poppy production in Mexico more than doubling, according to Special Agent Harry Sommers, who heads the local division of the Drug Enforcement Administration. "A lot of people hear 'heroin' and automatically think 'Afghanistan,' but that's not the case," he tells Daily RFT. All heroin in the United States can be traced back to poppies in Mexico and South America, and it's all refined in Mexico, he says.
Another factor contributing to the spike in fatalities is the elevated purity of the drug. In the 1970s, most heroin was 90 to 95 percent filler, but today it's common to see 70 percent filler -- and sometimes as little as 10 percent filler, said Sommers. That change is part of a marketing strategy by trafficking organizations, turning a formerly injection-based drug into a substance powerful enough to be snorted or smoked.
"They're earning zillions of dollars by marketing this as a recreational drug," Sommers tells Daily RFT. "If I stick it in my arm, then I'm a junkie, but if I snort it, it's recreational use. This is not your historical Skid Row with needles and veins anymore."
Sommers adds that most heroin trafficked into St. Louis travels through Chicago. Dealers range from street kids to more powerful suppliers "who are very successful," he says. "There is no ceiling" to how much money can be made.
Since 2007, heroin-related deaths have doubled in St. Louis County, more than doubled in the city, tripled in St. Charles County, and more than tripled in Jefferson and Franklin Counties. Fitch says that the prototypical heroin user lives in west county or south county, while the dealers tend to live in north County and the city.
He adds that the vast majority of theft in the area is drug-related, and most of that's due to heroin.