CLAYTON, Mo. (AP) -- St. Louis County police chief Tim Fitch on Thursday recalled a recent talk to a community group about the escalating number of heroin overdose deaths, when a man raised the question: If the druggies want to risk it, why not just let them die?
To Fitch, the callous question showed how little people know about the new heroin. Years ago, it was the drug of choice for hard-core abusers in dark alleys. Not anymore.
"These are your sons and daughters, brothers and sisters," Fitch said. "These are not anonymous people."
Fitch and dozens of others, including police chiefs from around the St. Louis region, an agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration and drug rehab experts, gathered for a news conference to announce a new approach to fighting heroin.
Their three-pronged effort includes education aimed chiefly at high school students, with the goal of warning them against trying the highly addictive drug even once. Enforcement work will focus on tracking down sellers and distributors, then seeking homicide charges in cases of deaths, while treatment efforts will include giving information cards to people arrested for heroin use that point them toward rehab services.
Harry Sommers, the DEA agent in charge of the St. Louis area, said most of the heroin in this region comes from Mexico. The drug became much more inexpensive and plentiful starting in 2008, when poppy growth in Mexico doubled, he said. That poppy is eventually turned into heroin.
In years past, heroin was typically 10 percent pure or less. Users had to shoot it into their veins to get high.
Now, it's a much easier -- and cheaper -- high. Heroin on the street can cost as little as $10, and Fitch said it is often 80 to 90 percent pure. When users don't understand the potency of what they're taking, the results are often fatal.
"We find them dead at home, dead at hotel rooms, even on parking lots of the neighborhood pharmacy with the syringe still in their arms," Fitch said.
And because of that increased potency, users wary of needles or the stigma of shooting up can smoke it or snort it and still get high, Sommers said.
"It makes it, in the minds of young people, a recreational drug," he said.
Last year, an Associated Press investigation showed that heroin deaths have been rising at an alarming rate nationally. The same is true in the St. Louis region. Fitch said 54 people died of heroin overdoses in 2009, 60 last year, and 18 already in 2011. At that pace, the county would see more than 70 heroin death by year's end.
"What we know is we have a heroin crisis in our community," Fitch said. "We have to do something more about it than we're doing up to this point."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)