Education, support key to addressing increased heroin abuse, speakers say

Thursday, May 24, 2012 | 11:42 p.m. CDT; updated 10:38 a.m. CDT, Friday, May 25, 2012

COLUMBIA — The Columbia Police Department and representatives from the medical and law enforcement communities discussed the recent increase of heroin and narcotic prescription-drug abuse in the area at a meeting Thursday night.

Speakers at the meeting said the aim was to increase public awareness about the drug, especially about the current surge in young-adult heroin abuse, and stress the importance of addressing the problem proactively, rather than reactively.

Jeff Rukstad, vice narcotic and organized crime officer in Columbia, said the traditional response to heroin-related crimes has been to arrest the individual and move on, but there is now an increased effort to deal with heroin addiction head on.

"We're trying to stop the overdoses," Rukstad said. "That's what we need to do and that's why we're here tonight."

"The problem kind of snuck up on us," Rukstad said. "It really caught us by surprise."

Almost all heroin in Columbia comes directly from St. Louis, the heroin hub of the Midwest, Rukstad said. St. Louis saw a spike in heroin-related deaths in recent years, with more than 120 deaths in 2010, Rukstad said.

"If it's going to kill them in St. Louis, it's going to kill us in Columbia," Rukstad said.

Rukstad said other cities in the area have held public forums to help address the issue of heroin. The hope is that the more people have conversations about the harms of heroin, the more the problem will fade away.

In recent years, Rukstad said, use by younger adults has been on the rise. Although there is no specific age, race or economic class that abuses heroin, the general trend has been individuals in their early 20s. Within the past few months, Rukstad said he's talked with heroin users as young as 15. Just last week, a 17-year-old boy was arrested for possession at one of the high schools, he said.

Availability and low cost were cited as the main reasons for the sharp increase in young adult users. Rukstad and other speakers said heroin use in the younger population is also strongly rooted in the abuse of prescription drugs such as Vicodin and OxyContin, which are weaker opiates than heroin.

Jeremy Duke, a treatment provider in the area, said the perception of opiates in general has loosened among the younger crowd.

"Kids don't have the same perception of risk that they used to," Duke said. 

Linda Frost, a prevention program director at the Family Counseling Center of Missouri, said education and support are essential for keeping kids from abusing heroin and other narcotic prescription drugs. She said letting the community know that there are outlets and treatment options is crucial, but the family plays a key role in drug abuse prevention.

Frost said simple things like a regular family dinner and two-way communication between parents and children go a long way in protecting youth from engaging in drug abuse.

Cara Baker, a mother and nurse at Hickman High School, was unaware of the issue but came out to get informed.

"I'm really surprised actually," Baker said. "I had no idea it was an issue, but I'm glad they're going out and talking about it. Knowledge is wisdom."

Next week, the Police Department plans to give the same presentation to all the assistant principals at area high schools, the meeting's monitor, Christine Carpenter, said.

 Supervising editor is Dan Burley

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