ROLLA, Mo. (AP) — A Missouri police chief is warning of an especially potent batch of heroin that might be to blame for six overdoses and one death in a 24-hour period recently in his town of about 20,000 residents.
Heroin use has been a problem in Rolla, a south-central Missouri college town, for about six years, Police Chief Mark Kearse said Wednesday. About 200 people in the community overdose each year and a dozen die from it, he said, with new users getting hooked every day.
Kearse said he was alarmed that there were so many overdoses in such a short period of time last Thursday and Friday, and he thinks they were caused by a bad batch of drugs.
One person, a woman in her 30s, was found dead last Thursday with a needle in her arm and a baggie of heroin nearby, Kearse said. He declined to identify the woman because autopsy results haven't been returned, and it's not an absolute certainty she died from shooting the drug.
Local use of injectable opiates has caused problems beyond those addicts are facing, most notably discarded used hypodermic needles that are being found around town. Two young children have been stuck by dirty needles since the first of the year.
A 12-year-old boy was stuck in the arm by a needle on Feb. 21 after he and another boy started playing with hypodermic syringes they found near an elementary school, Kearse said. Earlier this month, a 2-year-old girl was stuck with a needle while playing in her front yard.
Kearse said neither of the children contracted anything from the needles.
Aaron Zalis, superintendent of the Rolla School District, said much of the local heroin activity has been near shelters for women who are being abused.
At one elementary school, staff members each day walk around the school grounds that border the homes where needles have been found, he said.
"We've had quite a few on the edge of our playgrounds and schools, on the side of public streets, in parking lots in restaurants," Kearse said. "We pick them up and tell everyone to contact us."
The same thing is happening in communities across Missouri, said Dan Adams, director of care coordination for Southeast Missouri Behavioral Health.
Adams lives in Salem, a town of about 5,000 a half-hour southeast of Rolla where people also are finding needles on the streets.
"We probably see five times what we were seeing three or four years ago," said Adams, whose organization has treatment centers in Rolla and Salem. "It happened almost overnight. We went from being the methamphetamine capital to all of a sudden, it's heroin."
High-grade Mexican heroin started appearing in Missouri around 2008, said James Shroba, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's St. Louis field division. It has become a popular alternative to prescription opiates because it is easily accessible and cheaper than prescription drugs, he said.
Shroba said the new type of heroin is attractive to new users because it can be snorted.
Once the addiction takes hold, users move on to injecting the drug to get a more intense, immediate high, he said.
The transition from snorting to injecting can have disastrous effects on an addict's body, he said, and is a main contributor to overdoses.
"It's a whole different delivery system in the body," Shroba said. "Because it's high-potency heroin, you see users falling over with a needle in their arm, dead on the spot."